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open access to research

Books + Ideas, — December 2011

For me, one of the big benefits of working at a university was access to its library and in particular to its online journal subscriptions. I had hoped that by the time I retired everything I might want would be open access. But then we moved to the UK and I gave up my job...

The Bodleian is a wonderful library system, but as an external reader there are two major limitations: I can't actually borrow books and I can't use Oxford University's online journal subscriptions.

This is less of a problem in the sciences, where preprints are often (though not always) available, either through something like arkiv.org or informally through author web sites. But this culture doesn't seem to have reached very far into the humanities, where I find most of the research I want to read is not so accessible. Fortunately I know enough people who do work at universities that this is not a problem, but the possibility of losing access to all of this is disturbing.

More abstractly, every time someone hits a "this article will cost you $35" web page and (as they mostly will) gives up, that's a deadweight loss (as the economists call it) and a setback, however small, for human scientific and intellectual progress. My initial exposure to copyright and patent issues came through free software, but for me the arguments for open access research and science are actually more compelling. And, as with software, for me the moral and political arguments here seem as important as the economic or technical ones


  1. Can't you use Camilla's password? As a research assistant at Oxford, I would have thoght she's entitled to all research ( libraries at that university.)

    Comment by DL — December 2011
  2. Indeed.

    The fact the universities fund research then pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for electronic copies of that research for staff and students on condition that they exclude general public and media from reading it is rather bizarre.

    Even stupidier was the grant system in Australia that gave points for publishing in the most expensive journals owned by multinational publishing empires which resulted in universities banning their academics from publishing in local journals which didn't have an A or B classification because it would lower the university's rankings. This has now officially been abandoned but there is evidence that bureaucrats having found a set of rules on which to base their decisions haven't given it up on it easily and still use it.

    I used to have no trouble finding articles at Usyd while the library kept paper copies. But in the digital age I can't access any of them (or even check email in the library). Nor do any of the state or council public libraries have any access to recent articles. Now I have to beg people on staff to email me a PDF, which they can do easily even if they never read articles themselves.

    Comment by David Watford — December 2011
  3. Doug, yes, Camilla has access as a staff member, which is one reason I don't have any practical problem myself. But a lot of people aren't so lucky, and doing any kind of independent research without some kind of institutional affiliation would be pretty hard, at least in some disciplines.

    Comment by danny — December 2011
  4. David, that's a good point about print subscriptions being discontinued. The digital revolution in academic publishing, while hugely convenient for institutional users, has actually made access harder for some people. Fortunately the Bodleian provides open wireless access to all readers, not just university staff, so I can at least check my email while in the libraries here.

    Comment by danny — December 2011
  5. Who said the internet and digital revolution would make the print medium redundant or moribund. If anything, it is just what you said; access is made harder. What is the rationale behind all these, is it safeguarding intellectual property rights, petty rivalry ( our journal is better than yours, I don't want you to see it), or just plain dumb?

    Comment by DL — December 2011
  6. The answer to the question, "What is the rationale behind all these..." is simple:
    In a capitalist economy goods are priced according to supply and demand as determined by the willingness of customers to pay and the costs and profit expectations of producers to produce. To the publishers it is irrelevant that they are not the ultimate producers and that most of their customer base has an interest in expanded distribution. The fact that electronic copies can be mirrored and distributed publicly at zero direct cost to the publishers also doesn't enter into it. They are basing their price point on attempts to maximize their private net profits to the limit of what their identified market will pay.
    In summary: They can't easily find profit in free access for niche materials and are suspicious that providing it would cut into their revenues. This is not stupid or ignorant either, it is merely concerned with the self-interests of the publishers (cost containment, risk management, revenue maximization) above all else.

    Comment by anonymous coward — December 2011
  7. One thing that is rarely mentioned about "open access" publishing is that it is only open at the output end. At the input end, the publication charges by the open-access publishers make the old "page charges" look cheap. This is a serious barrier when the writer does not currently have a research grant (a waiver is often not easy to obtain). So, I only like "open access" when I am a reader, not a writer.

    Also, you may be interested in the the DeepDyve concept, which is discussed in this blog: http://iphylo.blogspot.com/2011/10/deepdyve-renting-scientific-articles.html

    Comment by DavidM — December 2011

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