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Is Open Access Really So Bad for British Science?

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For several months the British government has been steadily issuing OA policy guidelines for universities, research institutions; and more generally for British science. The new policy follows the Finch report, which has, in turn, been widely discussed and rejected by the academic community with an intensity that can be described as a wave of brutal criticism. Nevertheless, the government, or to be more specific, the universities minister, David Willetts, is planning to promote and push Open Access even further.

What are the government’s intensions? Well, according to the new guidelines, which have not yet entered into force, the plan is to make publicly funded research available to anyone to read for free by 2014. This means that all research, which is supported with public funds ought to be published in the Open Access model.

This has provoked criticism – expressed, among others, by the Royal Historical Society, the Political Studies Association and the Council for the Defence of British Universities, whose members include Sir David Attenborough, Richard Dawkins and Alan Bennett. Representatives of these organizations warned of “unintended consequences” for creativity and freedom in British academia.

The crux of the criticism has been well summed up by Peter Mandler, a professor of modern history at Gonville cultural and Caius College, Cambridge, who said:

“The government thinks this will be easy, cheap and maybe even save money by reducing the journal subscriptions for institutions. I think they are also trying to contribute to the growth agenda by saying that open access will stimulate a cascade of entrepreneurship in small and medium enterprises. But it is a fundamental revolution in the way academic life carries on. At the moment scholars decide where to publish, and now that job is going to be handed on to university administrators.”

Does it really mean that Open Access may jeopardize the freedom and creativity of British science; that in the near future, it will be the university administrators, not the scientists themselves, who will decide how, where and what to publish?

This discussion appears to have at least two contexts. The first is the question of whether Open Access should be implemented on a wide scale, and if so, could OA be a threat to the independence of research? Well, my response to this line of argument is that the introduction of an Open Access policy is a good decision. It is difficult to find reasons for maintaining the status quo, in which scientific papers are hidden behind a paywall, access to them is limited, and more and more academic libraries cannot afford to pay subscriptions. If research is carried out using public money, it is in fact paid for by the whole society, and therefore the whole society should have access to their results. In this case, the research results should be regarded simply as a form of public information. Moreover, the openness of science would allow researchers to increase the visibility of their work and have a positive impact on the exchange of ideas and experiences within the scientific community itself. In the case of OA, the access to scientific articles and books will be also granted to those scientists whose universities cannot afford to pay subscriptions; the list of the advantages of Open Access is long. It is further the question of whether the current system hampers the freedom and creativity of science, as academics have to adapt their work to stringent criteria – not only as to the quality requirements, but also to the journal volume restrictions. It is also said that Open Access could undermine the very foundations on which academic practice rests. However, are these foundations in fact solid? Does, for example, the current system of research rating, based predominantly on the high rank of the journal in which a specific article is published, benefit academics?

The second dimension of the controversy is how to implement Open Access policies at universities. I agree in this case, that this must be done sensitively and with full objectivity. Universities themselves should act only as conduits of government funds for publishing in the Open Access model, but the choice of a publishing house and a journal title should be the responsibility and the privilege of a scientist. One cannot of course entirely avoid the influence of funding. It is, alas, impossible to avoid some form of indirect institutional impact on the research. The stake-money is not unlimited; institutions decide which research topics are supported, and how they are accountable, etc. External engagement always affects the freedom of research at some point.  If therefore, an institution has the right to determine the budgetary framework, to influence the selection of research topics, why not then have the right to decide that research results are to be available to all?

The recently raised objections are in some respects reasonable. It is therefore essential that the mechanisms leading to the dissemination of Open Access are transparent, objective, and avoid encroaching onto the freedom of scientific research and of the researchers themselves. It is a point well taken and worth discussing further. However, the mere introduction of Open Access to science is not a bad thing at all. If the world is to progress in the light of scientific accomplishments, the science should be accessible to everyone, especially if it is paid for by taxes.


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