Come join the collective

Research is a global effort, so all must sign the White House petition for open access, argues Cameron Neylon

June 14, 2012

By any measure, it has been an amazing year for the campaign for open access to scholarly literature. In the past six months, both the UK government and the research councils have come out with statements supporting much more strongly the principle that free access to the published products of government-funded research is the right way to drive innovation, improve research efficiency and contribute to national well-being. And that it is simply the right thing to do.

In the US, meanwhile, a huge public response defeated a publisher-sponsored anti-open access bill. Bipartisan public-access legislation has been introduced to both houses of Congress, and a petition to the White House has gathered 25,000 signatures in just two weeks - which means that it will be placed on to the policy agenda on President Barack Obama's desk.

A small review of history may be in order at this point. Even at the very dawn of the web, it was clear that free access had the potential to transform the effectiveness and reach of scholarly communication. The research community could have seized that opportunity - but for the most part we have failed to do so. There have been some great achievements, such as the open e-print archive arXiv and the PubMed repository. But in general, as the power, dynamism and audience reach of the web have increased, all we have really done is to put printed pages online and then limit access to them.

We know that there is unmet demand. We know that access can support increased economic activity. And we know that the current system is unsustainable. Yet while some biomedical research funding agencies - the National Institutes of Health, the Medical Research Council and the Wellcome Trust - have led the way with strong public access policies, and while the policy developments from Research Councils UK are promising, we as a community have done little to deliver on the demonstrated promise of wider access to research.

Scholars who study collective action will not be surprised by this. It is one thing to agree that collective change is needed. It is quite another to make that change - particularly when it involves risks or disadvantages to individuals. It means sending papers to that new journal that does not have an impact factor yet; finding the money to pay for charges; taking the time to submit to the institutional repository - all these things require investment or risk a loss of prestige.

If we broadly agree as a community that improved access is a good thing, and we have seen that there are financially viable and effective means of delivering it through both journals and repositories, what does our understanding of collective action tell us about how to effect change? One route is through pockets of activity that grow gradually until they collectively reach a critical density. This is happening, but slowly. The other is via top-down policy action, where those with the power to demand change - funders and governments - require that it happen. The best scenario is when growing community acceptance of the need for change is combined with policy action.

And this is why the US petition is so important. It is easy to be cynical about government petition sites. When a popular petition suddenly arrives, governments are usually ill-equipped to deal with it. This one is different. The White House is already addressing the question of public access to research. Obama can direct US agencies to develop access policies. And alongside this, the petition will strengthen the hands of those supporting the legislation in both houses of Congress.

Why should this matter to us in the UK? Because research is a global effort. As David Willetts, the universities and science minister, has noted, policy action in this space is hard for a single nation. We need coordinated action; with this, we can achieve a transition to public access to the majority of the world's research in months, not decades.

We need to make a global case for the benefits of open access and for the wide range and diversity of public support. Signing this petition is a good place to start.

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