Dragging Academic Publishing into the 21st Century

Milena Popova looks at the continued difficulty of accessing publicly funded research and why a movement towards open access would help academics, businesses and the public.

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It’s been nearly ten years since I left academia, but I have enough friends who are academic researchers in various fields to know that academic publishing continues to be stuck in the 19th century. Every so often I need access to a research paper, and I have to beg friends at universities with the right subscriptions to get it for me; occasionally, I act as a broker for such requests from other people. Requests for access to papers are a fairly regular occurrence on my Twitter feed too. Everybody seems to be having a hard time getting hold of the latest research, regardless of whether it’s on nuclear physics, economics or philosophy. Which is all incredibly ironic, given that science is meant to be based on the open dissemination, exchange and discussion of ideas, nevermind the fact that the vast majority of it is funded by taxpayers’ money.

The Internet has done very little for opening up access to scientific research. If you happen to work at a university, it will give you the convenience of being able to get a PDF copy of a paper from your own office rather than having to rummage through dusty bound volumes of journals in the library, but that’s about it. The rest of us continue to be left in the dark. This is not for a lack of will on the part of scientists and researchers. In fact, they have often gone out of their way to open up access to their research as much as possible, for instance through projects such as ArXiv. Rather, it is publishers who stand to lose a lot of money if access to research is opened up further and who are therefore lobbying very hard against any moves towards open access.

The Access2Research initiative is attempting to change the status quo - at least in the US. Last month saw the launch of a petition to the White House to make publicly funded research openly available over the Internet, and on June 3rd the petition hit the required 25,000 signatures. As Cameron Nayoln points out, this puts open access firmly on the US government’s agenda, and is likely to be something we benefit from even outside the US.

Open access to scientific research is hugely important. For a start, it is likely to reduce costs for universities, allowing them to reroute funds they are currently spending on being able to access, among other things, their own research into new projects. In the UK this effect would potentially be even bigger, as subscriptions to electronic journals (as all electronic publications) are currently subject to VAT, adding another 20% to the costs. (Just in case you don’t want to wait for open access to solve the issue, there is a government petition on the VAT issue. A back-of-the-envelope calculation shows that a small to medium-sized university could afford up to an extra 14 lecturer posts if they did not have to pay VAT on electronic subscriptions.)

Being able to access other scientists’ results more cheaply and easily is likely to also improve the quality of ongoing academic research, particularly if opening access results in the kind of innovation that changes what is being published. One big issue in the way publishing works currently is that there is very little incentive to publish the results of failed experiments or experiments which did not yield the expected outcome. This means that in many cases scientists don’t know that a certain piece of work has been done already - and failed, thus potentially duplicating and wasting effort. Open access in and of itself is not going to fix this, but it may provide the right platforms to help address the problem. It would also help scientists find related work more easily, again allowing them to build on past experience rather than repeat work which has already been done.

Fields of research with a strong practical application are likely to benefit disproportionately from open access. In these areas - anything from Computing Science and Engineering to Business - there is currently very little interaction between academia and the real world. Coders and designers of computer chips rarely read the latest research due to lack of access, while university researchers have relatively little interaction with the real-world applications of their subject. I have worked in business for the last ten years and not once have I or my colleagues reached out to academia to understand if there is something we could or should be doing differently. At the same time, Business Schools are desperate to get real-world experience in, both for research and teaching purposes. Opening up access to publications would benefit both sides hugely.

While there is good news in the US, there is also hope for Europe and the UK in the area of open access. The UK government currently has a Working Group on Expanding Access looking at the issue. It had its final meeting in May and is expected to produce a report over the next month or so (“Spring 2012”). At a European level, the EU’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme is being finalised right now, due to launch in 2014. With 80 billion Euros behind it, it is highly likely to have a strong influence on the direction European research and innovation takes, and the good news is that open access appears to be firmly on the EU agenda. Overall then, it’s been a good few weeks for those of us passionate about dragging scientific publishing - kicking and screaming - into the 21st century.


Milena is an economics & politics graduate, an IT manager, and a campaigner for digital rights, electoral reform and women's rights. She tweets as @elmyra

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By Milena Popova on Jun 07, 2012

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