Why I ...think research access, impact and assessment are linked

May 18, 2001

The United Kingdom leads the world in access to research in several ways. The research assessment exercise is not one of them, but this could change if we worked on the link between access and assessment - productivity and impact - for the benefit of both.

Scholars and scientists differ from other authors in that they publish their research findings not for royalties or fees but for "impact". They are rewarded for their productivity, which is assessed not on the basis of the sheer magnitude of their output but on the magnitude of its uptake : how other researchers use it and how much it affects the present and future course of research.

For scholars and scientists, making their work publicly accessible to all potential users is vital, and making work public is what research publication is all about. The only thing that tied researchers and their work to royalty or fee-based publication in the Gutenberg era was the high cost of generating and disseminating print on paper. This cost had to be recovered somehow. Access tolls were the only way to do so, even though they drastically reduced the readership and hence the impact of research papers.

Post-Gutenberg, research in every discipline will continue to be refereed as it always was, by a pyramid of established journals. It is the maintenance of this sign-posted hierarchy of quality that makes the research literature navigable and useable.

Journal peer review is also the backbone of research assessment and is thus the basis of the RAE, which determines universities' individual research funding levels. If journals did not implement peer review, researchers would not know which papers to read and build on and universities would not know which researchers to hire and promote.

Yet peer reviewers perform their services for free, just as peer-reviewed authors report their research for free. This is all part of the much more indirect reward system of scholarly and scientific inquiry. So journals' gate-keeping function, which controls and certifies research quality, should not be confused with their toll-gating function, which pays for the paper or online product.

Post-Gutenberg, gate-keeping remains essential, but what toll-gating pays for has become a mere option. Yet the two remain wrapped together, the result being that toll-gating is blocking access to research.

Publishers cannot and will not remedy this on their own. Only authors and their institutions can eliminate all the obsolete barriers by self-archiving their own refereed research online, now.

Free software with which universities can create their own interoperable "e-print" archives has been designed by Southampton University ( www.eprints.org ). These archives are compliant with the Open Archives Initiative ( www.openarchives.org ), which means that all their distributed contents can be harvested into one global, virtual archive, free for all, maximising the accessibility and the impact of all refereed research.

The RAE can help hasten the freeing of access to this literature by mandating that all UK universities self-archive all their annual refereed research in their own e-print archives. Impact will be enhanced with the help of citation-linking services for open archives such as opcit.eprints.org, an international collaboration between Southampton, Cornell University and the Los Alamos National Library.

Not only the citation impact but the "hit" impact, for both papers and authors, will be continually assessable online at any time, instead of every four years in the RAE.

Stevan Harnard Professor of cognitive science, department of electronics and computer science University of Southampton

For copyright/funding details, visit http:///cogsci.soton.ac.uk/-harnad/Tp/resolution.htm

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