Friday, April 8, 2011

Locked away

It is a strange paradox in the academic world that research that is often funded by public money and that should be of interest to many is then only accessible to a privileged few. The main objective of most researchers is publication in one of the major scientific journals and, of course, this is what really counts in your CV when you're aiming for higher positions. However these journals command hefty subscription fees and university libraries devote a large part of their budgets to journal subscriptions. So students and staff can read the research papers but they are essentially out of the reach of the general public. This immediately places a barrier between the researcher and the general public. Shouldn't research results be freely accessible for all?

This is the subject of an editorial article in The Guardian entitled In praise of ... academic wikipedians which examines the reluctance of academics to seriously get involved in more open publication. The scientific journals have a long established business model and one that clearly works and it is not surprising that they have not been so interested in open access. As the articles states:

"While the stated aim of academic journals is disseminating ideas, they throw barbed wire around themselves and keep the interested public out."

The principle of Open Access (research being freely accessible on the net in fulltext) has become relatively widespread but many journals have been reluctant to allow parallell publishig on open sites. The vital factor here is status. Publication in open access journals doesn't quite have the same impact as publication in the top journals and it's going to take time to change this entrenched pecking order.

But what about Wikipedia, the most comprehensive reference work ever compiled and the default source for millions every day? The article wonders why so few academics are intrested in contributing. Wikipedia is still generally frowned upon as an academic source but the challenge from Wikipedia is that if you don't trust what you read why not help us improve the information? Right now the Wikipedia Foundation Research Committee are carrying out a survey, Expert barriers to Wikipedia, to find out why there is so little academic involvement (read more in another article Wikipedia wants more contributions from academics). Since Wikipedia is often the first reference point for so many people (students, journalists, general public) it would make sense for the universitiesto get involved and make sure the information is comprehensive and trustworthy.

Once again the problem is status. Contributing to Wikipedia gives almost zero status on an academic CV and as a result there is no reason that faculty should devote hours to that rather than concentrating on work that gives results. Of course there are plenty of pioneers who believe in the principles of open publication and collaborative work but they are still a tiny minority and the mainstream faculty is still highly skeptical. Who can tip the balance?

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