Leader: Put all the results out in the open

Researchers, government and society benefit when research is made freely available, so the sooner it is mandated, the better

November 12, 2009

Impact is certainly having an impact and could be measured in the amount of hot air generated. Looking at it dispassionately, one can see both sides of an argument that is becoming increasingly polarised. Of course academics want to have impact; no one wants their work ignored. And in a chilly fiscal climate, the Government needs comforting facts and figures in which to wrap its spending plans to satisfy an exasperated electorate.

But the concept has been ill-defined and the message to academics clumsy, appearing to tell them that they have to be both producers of research and salesmen for its impact; the latter a particularly difficult task given that achieving impact is mostly outside their sphere of influence. As a poster on our website asks: is the business of the academic as much about dissemination as it is about discovery?

If it is, the Government is certainly missing a trick with open access. The research excellence framework has been designed with impact in mind, proposing that 25 per cent of funding is allocated according to the economic and social benefits of submitted research. If the Higher Education Funding Council for England really wants to recognise research that can "deliver demonstrable benefits to the economy, society, public policy, culture and quality of life", instead of trying to force researchers to demonstrate this, it should put a requirement into the REF that all research papers submitted be mandated open access.

It's obvious that if we want policymakers and small businesses to draw on the fruits of the academy's labours, we have to set out the stall so that they can see them. Both these sets of "research users" lack the logins to the subscription-based journals publishing the papers and the money to pay to access them. Is it right that academic research paid for by the taxpayer remains so unavailable to the people who are likely to make the most use of it?

But it is not only common sense that recognises open access - the subject of our cover feature - as a powerful tool to deliver impact. A recent pre-print by Stevan Harnad et al of research into citation impact shows that authors whose papers are made open access are cited significantly more than authors whose articles are available only to subscribers. The Open Citation Project provides ample evidence of this (http://opcit.eprints.org/oacitation-biblio.html).

When the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee highlighted open access in its 2004 report Scientific Publications: Free for All?, it favoured a change in the publishing model to open access and was critical of the Government for giving the issue so little attention. "All UK higher education institutions (should) establish institutional repositories on which their published output can be stored and from which it can be read, free of charge, online, (and) research councils and other government funders (should) mandate their funded researchers to deposit a copy of all of their articles in this way," it said.

Although most of the recommendations fell victim to intense lobbying from subscription publishers, there have since been moves in the right direction. The research councils have all introduced policies mandating that papers deriving from the work that they publicly fund be made available in open-access repositories. All that remains now is for that other arm of dual support to be twisted to do the same.


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