Sunday, October 2, 2011

Why is public research not public?

Open Access by maolibrarian, on Flickr
Public money often funds research. That research is carried out by publically employed university researchers. The research findings are then submitted for publication and are peer reviewed by other university professors to see that the research is good enough for publication. Fine so far but here comes the catch that is attracting increasing controversy. This public research is then published in scientific journals that charge often very high subscription rates. University libraries then pay a large chunk of their budgets to get access to these journals so that students can read them. So more public money is paid to the publishers to see articles written with public money but which is inaccessible to the general public. Amazingly the researchers and reviewers get paid very little for their efforts. The reward for the researcher is of course academic reputation but the cost to public funds is unacceptably high.

In the last few weeks there have been several highly critical articles on this theme, for example Steve Wheeler, Sharp practice:

"For a long time I have felt very strongly that some academic publishers are operating a sharp practice by exploiting the goodwill of scholars. Large groups of lecturers and researchers act as journal authors and reviewers without payment, and then the publishers sell this content on to other academics at grossly inflated prices. Other highly knowledgeable academics give up their time, also for no payment, to review and advise editors on the content, and this can be painstaking work - read this by Martin Weller on the real cost of 'free reviewing'. This is not sustainable and must change."

The answer is of course the now widespread principle of Open Access where articles are published in open journals and are free to all. These journals have not yet achieved the academic status of the traditional publications but they are run by the academic community for the academic community. The peer review process is just as rigorous and the articles are available to the world. Many traditional journals now allow parallell publication whereby the article is also published in an open access journal, often 6 months after initial publication. However many journals still own exclusive copyright, effectively locking away public research from the public.

Last week the academic heavyweight Princeton University made a highly influential move in favour of open access by preventing staff from signing away the copyright to their articles to for-profit journals and insistig that articles also be made avaiable as open access. Exceptions to the rule must be first approved by the university. If Princeton can do this then many other prestigious universities may well follow suit. Read the details of this in an article in The Conversation, Princeton goes open access to stop staff handing all copyright to journals.

In that article the significance of Princeton's announcement is summarised as follows by Professor Simon Marginson (University of Melbourne): 

“The achievement of free knowledge flows, and installation of open access publishing on the web as the primary form of publishing rather than oligopolistic journal publishing subject to price barriers, now depends on whether this movement spreads further among the peak research and scholarly institutions.”

If university libraries did not have to pay millions of dollars/euros to pay for access to articles written by university faculty maybe they would be able to use that money to fund more important work like providing better support to students and faculty. Let's hope more universities take a stand like Princeton and work out a new way forward for scientific publication.

Steve Wheeler has posted a list of recommended open access scientific journals in a new post, The open case.

  by  maolibrarian 

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