Fruits of research should be free

July 11, 2003

The news that researchers now have access to free online publication through BiomedCentral ("Jisc wins free journal access with BiomedCentral", THES, June ) might - if we are lucky - herald a radical change in the way that scholars distribute research results.

I have no connection with BiomedCentral and have not yet submitted a paper to them - but will once they start publishing social science journals. Such a service signals an end to the free ride that publishers of academic journals have had from tax-payers' investment in research and scholarship.

BiomedCentral's deal with the Joint Information Systems Committee entails free submission to rigorously peer-reviewed biomedical and health-related online journals for UK researchers. It also means that anyone with web access can read and use their work without paying for it.

This is to be welcomed and not simply because of what The THES calls "expanding access to researchers in poor countries". Students and researchers in the UK often do not have access to important scholarship because it is prohibitively expensive.

Some publishers have profit margins up to 40 per cent on journals, and subscription costs continue to rise. Worse still, the products of publicly funded research are given free to journal publishers who sell them for a profit, but do not pay authors, peer-reviewers, editors or funding agencies for their intellectual labour or investment.

Some academics argue that web-based publications mean that research assessment exercise submissions detailing the "impact" of publications, and hence the "quality" of research, would be undermined. If this were true, it would be a wonderful thing. Sadly, there are already plenty of systems by which "hits" and "downloads" can be counted and by which webcrawlers can find citations. But if a global readership had access to academics' work, students and the lay public could contribute to the count of "hits", too.

Let's start a little revolution for democracy of scholarship. We could go further and demand that research council grants be conditional on their results being published on the web. This should apply not just to the biomedical sciences, but to the arts, humanities, natural and social sciences.

As for monographs, there is no reason why the research councils could not host these on their servers. There's no excuse for research funded by taxpayers not being available free to all who might benefit, in this country and abroad. It's already been paid for.

Carl May
Professor of medical sociology
University of Newcastle

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