Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Knowledge generated by government funding should be freely available: e-petition

Quick link to the e-petition: http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/16041

On 29th August, George Monbiot let fly in the Guardian with an analysis of the costs, and practices, involved in academic publishing and access to knowledge. It’s well worth a read, as are many of the reader comments afterwards.

In a nutshell; most UK academic research is government funded - in other words, from the taxpayer. Most of the resulting articles and papers end up in journals (print and digital), with most of these published by a very small number of publishers. Researchers often lose distribution rights as one of the conditions of publications, and the publishers charge often large amounts of money for academics, universities and whoever else to have copies of, or access to, those journals.

And these charges are not cheap, as Monbiot illustrates:
Reading a single article published by one of Elsevier's journals will cost you $31.50. Springer charges €34.95, Wiley-Blackwell, $42. Read 10 and you pay 10 times. And the journals retain perpetual copyright. You want to read a letter printed in 1981? That'll be $31.50.
Of course, you could go into the library (if it still exists). But they too have been hit by cosmic fees. The average cost of an annual subscription to a chemistry journal is $3,792. Some journals cost $10,000 a year or more to stock. The most expensive I've seen, Elsevier's Biochimica et Biophysica Acta, is $20,930. Though academic libraries have been frantically cutting subscriptions to make ends meet, journals now consume 65% of their budgets.

Those reader comments after the article provide more examples. And it’s not just academic libraries who are hit by these costs; independent researchers, and members of the public, often have to pay eye-watering amounts of money to access knowledge created by research funded by taxpayers (i.e. themselves).

The emergence of the Internet as a possible media for knowledge access and dissemination hasn’t reduced the costs that the major publishing houses generally charge. This is good business (profit) for the larger publishing houses; for example, the financial reports of Reed Elsevier, parent company of the academic publisher Elsevier, show healthy earnings for shareholders.

California Fair Elections petitions

This is not a new or recent issue; it’s been going on for years, as the comments after articles such as this one show. There have been initiatives to try and make access to academic knowledge faster or cheaper. These ranged from JISC-funded online access experiments in the mid 90’s, through to open access online journals in specific subjects, and more direct action such as persuading the editorial board of a journal to move to a cheaper publisher, Google Scholar, academics being urged to contact the authors of paper articles directly to ask for a free copy, and attempts to "steal" and make available large collections of papers.

Many of these initiatives have helped open up a small chink of knowledge here and there. But many are comparable to street fighting, winning a battle one street (journal), or even house (paper), at a time in a grinding, sprawling, war of knowledge access. Even Google Scholar doesn't come anywhere near making the 50 million plus published journal articles available.

One possible solution, or enabler, to forcing large amounts of future knowledge to be cheaply or freely available, is for the main funders of the underlying research to make it a condition of funding. There are precedents for this, one of the most prominent being in the US health research sector:
The NIH [National Institutes of Health] Public Access Policy ensures that the public has access to the published results of NIH funded research. It requires scientists to submit final peer-reviewed journal manuscripts that arise from NIH funds to the digital archive PubMed Central upon acceptance for publication.

And here in the UK, some funding bodies are changing their policies for the better, so the war is being won, a street or even a suburb or town at a time. The JULIET project gives the most up to date positions from various research funding bodies, from the UK and elsewhere, with regard to open access.

As said previously, taxpayer money funds much of the research in UK universities and colleges. Making awards of this money conditional on the resulting research results and knowledge being made openly and freely available, within a reasonable time, will “force” publication in places where libraries, academics, researchers and members of the public can access them freely and quickly. It seems only fair; taxpayers would just be getting what they paid for.

Hence the UK government e-petition below. Note that is not an attempt to put publishers out of business. As emerging systems such as Open Access and Repositories demonstrate, the same materials and knowledge can be published in a number of places, both free and “charged for”. Publishing houses still have many useful functions to provide within the academic research sector.

In the (very unlikely) scenario that the e-petition gets 100,000 signatories, it becomes eligible for parliamentary debate. At the least, it will hopefully raise a bit more awareness outside of academia. While most academic researchers are aware of the issues, often through experience, most of the general public - whose tax money through this route finds its way eventually to the shareholders of a clutch of publishing houses - are not.

Here’s the link to the petition, and the petition text itself (annoyingly, the government website removes the paragraph breaks so it's a large slab of text on there). Yes, holes can be picked in it by the pedantic, but it’s been kept as non-technical and general as possible to appeal not just to academics but to anyone who comes across it.
Most of the research in UK universities and colleges is funded by the taxpayer through the government. However, the knowledge generated by this is often controlled by publishers who charge significant amounts of money, often hundreds or thousands of pounds per individual journal, for access.
These charges put severe pressure on university funding, which mostly comes from (again) the taxpayer and student fees. Research suffers as academics lose access, on cost grounds, to research in their field. Members of the public cannot afford access to knowledge they have indirectly funded.

Despite many initiatives to make this taxpayer-funded knowledge openly accessible, most of it is still “locked” away in high cost publications.

Publications and knowledge generated by research funded through the government, unless genuinely sensitive (e.g. military or atomic development), should be freely available, in their entirety, within a year. This should be a condition of research funding.

By the way, if you fancy “signing” a few more petitions, can I nudge you to consider the Petition in Support of Public Libraries? Low cost or free knowledge is an obviously good thing, but so is easy access - for the whole population and not just academics - to this knowledge.

No comments:

Post a Comment