Inaccessible research

March 6, 2014

In the article “Open access may have little impact on time-poor firms” (News,  February), representatives of the publisher Elsevier suggest that achieving the UK government’s goal of full open access to publicly funded research would not have a transformative effect on small and medium-sized enterprises because they need tools as well as content to pinpoint research and lack time to wade through journals.

Research has shown that SMEs do use academic research but many find access difficult, time-consuming and costly.

In a survey conducted for the Publishing Research Consortium, Mark Ware found that 73 per cent of UK SMEs reported having difficulties accessing research articles, and just 2 per cent reported having access to all the articles they needed. In a smaller survey of Danish high-tech SMEs, conducted on behalf of the Danish Agency for Science, Technology and Innovation, colleagues and I found that 48 per cent of SMEs rated research articles very or extremely important for their work, but 79 per cent reported having difficulties accessing the articles they needed. The main difficulties related to paywall and technical paywall-related access barriers.

Crucially, we found that generic search engines are by far the most commonly used means of discovery. None of the firms surveyed obtained access to articles presenting difficulties through public libraries. The concept of access via public libraries is no longer appropriate in the digital desktop era.

The proposed “tools”, in the form of paywall-controlled proprietary access silos, are the problem, not the solution. Science publishing is now where mainframe computing was in the 1970s, with incompatible proprietary systems in which hardware (tools) and software (articles) were tightly coupled to keep users within the proprietary walled garden.

I suggest that the UK government pursue an open access policy that separates publishing services from both tools and content. Doing so will create the conditions for innovation based on open access and open licence content, and ensure that small firms have the resources they need to make the most of open access.

John Houghton
Victoria University, Australia

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