The question in the title was a friend’s facebook status earlier this week. My friend is a first year undergraduate at a UK university. She is doing research for her essay and is finding some great articles which will help her as she writes her essay. The problem is her university does not subscribe to the journals in question. She knows the information she wants is there. It’s just that she can’t get it. One day she might be your psychologist. Wouldn’t you like to think that had access to the best research and practice in whatever issue it was that had led you to need her services?
Open access has been in the (academic) news a lot in the past few days with the academic boycott of Elsevier gathering pace. This boycott is about a range of issues, but most critically it is about the price of journals to subscribers and also the fees Elsevier charges to make open access possible ($4000 according to one article). Detractors will point out that all journals cost money to run and someone has to pay somewhere. I am editor of the undergraduate journal Debut. There are no submission or access fees or print costs, but my time is paid for by my employer. If it wasn’t the journal might not happen or I might have to run it my ‘spare time’. Alternatively I could hand it over to someone else who would be operating under the same kinds of constraints.
Since I set up the open access language teaching research database YazikOpen I have been thinking more and more about what the right model should be for academic publishing. I have been drawn towards John Rawl’s Theory of Justice as a starting point. Rawls about what he called ‘the veil of ignorance’. The just society would be one which was agreed by people who did not know when or where they would be born, whether they would be black or white, a man or woman, rich or poor, intelligent or not, etc., etc. When applied to access to academic research I think along these lines.
- People should have access to research irrespective of where they live, how much money they have or where they work or study etc.
- People should be able to publish their research irrespective of where they live, how much money they have or where they work or study etc. (This is big problem I have with author publication fees for open access—I suspect that they are a deterrent to many people who might otherwise submit to them).
- People should be able to know, in some way or another, whether the research meets certain standards of good quality. 1 and 2 are no use if the research is not good, or even worse, damaging. This is problem for those who might advocate the abolition of journals (and peer review) in favour of “just publish it on your website”.
- Researchers have a duty to ensure that their research reaches the people who might benefit most from it. This may involve writing it up in another form. (As an aside I’ve just finished reading Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science so I have a heightened sense of concern about the ways in which journalists ‘disseminate’ research findings).
At first glance it appears that these principles are in some degree of conflict. However, I am starting to think that the world’s universities have the resources and infrastructure to provide ‘a free at the point of access or contribution’ system which bypasses the traditional print publishers altogether. This would mean a substantial change in academic culture. You never know it might lead the publishers to rethink their mays. They might start selling my article for £1 for 20 pages instead of £25. It’s not free, but it is much more reasonable—someone might actually buy my work for £1. By the way I would want 20p of that plus a contribution to the editors and reviewers!