Academic research shouldn’t be made freely available to all
David Willetts, the science minister, has spoken: the Government, in this Olympic year, is ‘going for gold’ – enabling everyone to access university research free of charge. Responding to the Finch report, they have made it clear that they will do this regardless of cost. Yet to accept the recommendations at this stage is a mistake. They will undermine the UK’s world-class research competitiveness – one of our major assets – but with no benefit to the British economy, at a time when this should be a top priority.
At first glance many of the recommendations seem entirely reasonable – which is why it seems the Government has accepted them. Academic research is largely funded by the Government and charities, the argument goes, so why not insist that academic researchers should make it available to all, free of charge to the user. Intuitively, it makes sense.
Yet on closer examination, there are some grave flaws to the approach the Government has decided to follow, not least the cost.
This policy means that unlike others across the globe, UK authors will have to pay to publish, in order to make their articles freely available to everyone. This is in addition to conventional journal subscription fees which already cost us hundreds of millions to access articles. It’s like a journalist paying to write an article to make it freely available to all readers, and yet still needing to buy the paper. This approach, the so called ‘gold’ level open access, will be paid straight from fixed research budgets – with an additional cost of up to £50m – meaning less research.
Wealthy institutions and well-funded academic researchers will be able to absorb the costs but for those just starting out, it could present a real barrier to publishing in the most reputable journals.
For me, it’s the wider impact on the British economy which is most worrying. The Government argues that these proposals will give us a competitive economic advantage. They will not. The costs of research for the UK will increase, but without providing a preferential benefit to British businesses. This hardly seems like an effective way to make use of our world-class research to help rebuild our economy, nor helping to contribute to generating the millions of jobs necessary for the UK, any time soon.
Surely we should ask businesses what preferential access to our research they would value and how we can make the UK the best place in the world for corporations to come, collaborate and invest.
Let’s be clear: there are alternatives. We can reduce the cost by accepting the so-called green, rather than gold, open access, which would see academics free to publish their research papers online after they have been published in scientific journals. We can work with the learned societies and together create new ways to publish research. We only need to look at Wikipedia to see a good example of how to make information accessible in a cost effective manner.
In the meantime, there are measures we as individual academics can take to make or research more available and accessible. We can use the myriad social media tools already available to us: Twitter, Facebook, Audioboo and Youtube. We can create Wikipedia pages; ensure PhD theses are published online; create up-to-date personal web-pages, and provide publicly accessible summaries of research. These are easy, cost effective and searchable.
We are entering a brave new world of publishing – we only have to look around at what has happened to newspapers and fiction writing. Gold always shines brightly – and gold open access may be appropriate for international funders who can insist on a level playing field – but in this case green is a more attractive option. The government cannot afford to throw public money at commercial publishers at the expense of the science budget – if we do so then we risk doing more harm than good to our research community and to the British economy.
Professor Stephen Caddick is Vice-Provost for enterprise at UCL.
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