July 16, 2013
The Guardian recently published an article by Professor Robin Osborne under the controversial title “Why open access makes no sense”. The author sets out to prove that there is no such thing as free access to academic research, and having caused quite a stir, I think it is worth commenting.
Let’s start with a presentation of the main thesis proposed by Robin Osborne, according to which open access makes no sense. In essence, the fact that research is funded by the tax-payer does not mean that it becomes the property of the tax-payer, because research is not a product but the process.
I will not quote his full statement, which takes up almost the whole of the professor’s article. However, it is worth quoting two passages that explain the rational of his arguments:
“Like it or not, the primary beneficiary of research funding is the researcher, who has managed to deepen their understanding by working on a particular dataset.”
“For those who wish to have access, there is an admission cost: they must invest in the education prerequisite to enable them to understand the language used. Current publication practices work to ensure that the entry threshold for understanding my language is as low as possible. Open access will raise that entry threshold. Much more will be downloaded; much less will be understood.”
The first of these quotes demonstrates who is the most important in the process of generating new knowledge and in the development of science. The second shows disbelief in opening access to science – it does not make sense since “ordinary” people are not prepared to fully understand it. And of course, OA harms the visibility and impact of books or articles.
Even disregarding the fact that OA helps to achieve greater visibility and level of citations, as I have written many times before on this blog, it is difficult to agree with such an exclusive perception of science. Just look at Jack Andraka, who thanks to OA had access to research results to help him succeed. Moreover, is the excess of knowledge really worse than the lack of it?
On the other hand, it is hard to disagree with the argument that scientific work is specific in its character. That is true. But still, despite its specificity, this is the kind of work that is paid for, from one or another source. It also includes this process of generating new scientific knowledge. Therefore, if the source of remuneration for conducting research and “producing” new knowledge are the taxpayers, why do they have to pay twice for the same thing? It is as if I were to hire some one, pay the salary and then be asked for an additional fee in order to see the results of their work. For whom does he or she actually work for? And for whom do researchers at universities work for? Is it for themselves?