Free and open access to research


The concept of intellectual property has been transformed since the advent of the internet. Yes, it has spawned seditious storms of copyright infringement but it has also generated massive innovation thanks to the ‘general public’ now being able to access vast volumes of data easily and freely.

The ‘net is arguably the most transformative event to mould humankind since the dawn of time. Big statement, but . . .

As the ripples of re-thinking roll through society, research has now become an issue for first world nations like the US, Britain and Australia.

What is now becoming established as a fundamental principle is that if government pays for research to be conducted, the public is entitled to free access to that research.

It is early days yet but the Obama administration is taking a firm stance in the US. It is making open access to research a condition of taxpayer funding.

The days of monopoly publishers hoarding their tracts may nearly be over.

The US is to require federal agencies that spend more than $100 million on research and development to make the results universally available after the material is initially published. Even so, if stakeholders believe there is a pressing case to be made for earlier public release, they will be able to challenge for earlier access.

Of course, there is a whole world of research produced by agencies which spend less than $100 million a year on R&D. That is a gaping chasm that demands greater attention and freedom of access. Frankly, ANY government-funded research ought to be available quickly to taxpayers.

The constraints of academia, especially the long lead times it takes for scholarly research to be published in peer-reviewed journals, usually instigates very lengthy delays until the public can access it.

Unfortunately, this trend to greater freedom of access does open a Pandora’s box.

There are some 20,000 scholarly journals published and most suggest they could not survive without expensive annual subscriptions or high-priced purchase of individual articles. But there is discussion of an alternative model and it is one that gives real cause for concern.

The publishers have suggested that universities and research agencies meet thee cost of publication in journals. Now, that would never give rise to conflicts of interest or corruption, would it? Especially when universities base much of their prestige on the publication rate of their academics. Nah, a system like that could not be perverted. Yeah, right. So, we take one step forward and two backwards. Why can’t life just be easier?


Acknowledgement: Stephen Matchett, The Australian.