There’s a great post over at the LSE Impact Blog today by Jonathan Gray which makes both a practical and a philosophical argument for open access publishing in academia. Open access refers to making research papers actually publicly accessible, as currently most journals we publish in require hefty subscription fees to read. Universities tend to be their biggest customers, with the result that most research is published only to be read by other researchers. This article makes a lovely argument about the responsibility of we ‘scholars’ to share knowledge and to encourage discussion and debate, which locking findings behind closed web links runs counter to.
For me, the debate about open access is a debate not just about the availability of research findings but about the responsibility and duty to provide those findings to the public who so often pay for them. However, open access discussions tend to be focused on – or perhaps at – journals and their publishers, and researchers and their universities. The majority of researchers will be working at institutions which have subscriptions to the journals, so this isn’t about researchers themselves struggling to get the papers (though this does happen – #icanhazpdf on twitter is now used by researchers to ask academics at other universities whether they can get a paper that the researcher’s own university doesn’t subscribe to.) But I did notice that this meant the argument about “open access for all” is more one of principle then (1), rather than making an argument with, for example, patients themselves about their need or desire to access those findings.
A while ago I began to wonder if this really was even an issue for people outside academia though – do they really ever try and read these papers? I asked as much on twitter, and various patients/service users did reply and say this was an indeed is an issue for them, that they had wanted to read the results of a study about their health issue but found themselves locked out. Personally I think this supports the arguments above, that if we are ostensibly doing research for patients, then locking the findings out of their view is kind of crappy. What I found really enlightening though was the discussion of how these paywalls made them feel.
As is often the case with issues when you ask patients or service users directly, you find out about an angle you hadn’t considered. It hadn’t occurred to me that closed access publishing could be seen as yet another symptom of a research culture that doesn’t really rate the end users of it’s research. It made me realise that perhaps another benefit of open access would be to encourage (or perhaps force…) researchers to engage with “their” public, the people they did the research ‘for’. Perhaps if we let patients read about research, we’d be able to engage in educated discussions with them about it, and we might start to realise what they have to contribute. As long as the findings are locked away, for our eyes only, we can carry on telling ourselves that only we understand it, and hey, it’s all for their own good anyway, right?
(1) There is a more economic argument as well – given that Universities are almost constantly complaining about lack of funding, perhaps we should look at which industries we line the pockets of:
PS. A huge thank you to those tweeps above who contributed to the discussion and helped me make these realisations!