What Is Research?

July 29, 2009

Information costs and open access

Filed under: Uncategorized — vipulnaik @ 4:59 pm
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In recent years, there has been a growing trend towards “open access” among librarians and academics. For instance, the University of Michigan recently held an Open Access Week, where they describe open access as:

free, permanent, full-text, online access to peer-reviewed scientific and scholarly material.

In an earlier blog post, I discussed some issues related to open access. Here, I attempt to look at the matter more comprehensively.

Rationales for open access

There are many rationales for open access. The simplest rationale is that open access means reduced cost of access to information, which allows more people to use the same research. Since the marginal cost of making research available via the Internet to more people is near zero, it makes sense from the point of view of efficiency to price access by yet another person to the research at zero.

Another rationale is a more romantic one: making scientific and scholarly publishing available openly allowsfor a free flow of ideas and a grander “conversation”. Support for this rationale also indicates that open access should be more than just free (in the sense of zero cost) access to materials, but also a license that permits liberal reuse of research materials in new contexts. Academia already has strong traditions of quoting from, linking to, and building upon, past work, but this form of open access seeks to provide a legal framework that explicitly specifies reuse rights that go beyond the traditional copyright framework of countries such as the United States. An example of such permissive licensing is the Creative Commons licenses.

As shorthand for these two rationales, I shall use cost rationale and conversation rationale.

Open access policies/mandates

One of the major problems the open access movement has faced so far is getting people to publish papers in open access journals. As long as the best papers continue to be published in closed-access journals, academics who want to read these journals will pressure their university libraries to subscribe to these journals, even when the journals overcharge. Thus, librarians are unable to push open-access terms on publishers. (more…)


March 17, 2009

The “fair copyright in research works” controversy

Filed under: Culture and society of research — vipulnaik @ 4:38 pm
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There are competing interests, and there are competing interests. In recent years, there has been a growing Open Access (OA) movement, that advocates that scientific research be published for open access. So, not only should people be able to download scientific papers for free, they should also be able to reuse the results for their own experiments. Creative Commons, an organization that came up the the Creative Commons licenses that allow for creators of original works to give others rights that go beyond fair use in copyright law, has been among the organizations at the forefront of Open Access. They even have a separate branch, called Science Commons, that specifically deals with opening up scientific research.

Science Commons was understandably delighted at the NIH Public Access Policy. According to this policy, the National Institute of Health (a governmental organization of the United States) mandated that all research conducted with NIH grants be released to the public within a year of publication.

Recently, a bill was proposed by John Conyers, a Democratic House Representative from Michigan (a United States state) that would have the effect of scrapping the NIH public access policy, and effectively making it impossible for such policies to be instituted. The act was titled the Fair Copyright in Research Works Act”. Many in the blogosphere and scientific community were up in arms at this act. Consider, for instance, that 33 Nobel Laureates apparently opposed the bill. Or consider two posts by Lawrence Lessig and Michael Eisen in the Huffington Post, suggesting that Conyers’ decision to reintroduce the bill was influenced by the campaign contributions he received from commercial publishers. Conyers’ reply was severely trashed by Michael Eisen, Peter Subers, and Lawrence Lessig. Blog posts by Paul Courant, Molly Kleinman, and numerous others. Clearly, the bill hasn’t gone down well with a lot of open access advocates.

What precisely is the problem?

There are a number of arguments for making open access mandatory rather than voluntary, at least in certain contexts. One is the moral argument: taxpayers are paying for the research, so they have a right to access that research. This argument in and of itself isn’t extremely strong. After all, if we really want to be fair to taxpayers, shouldn’t taxpayers get to vote on how the NIH spends its money in the first place. Also, considering that only U.S. taxpayers are paying for the research, shouldn’t the open access policy make the materials openly available only in the United States, so that other countries do not free-ride off the money of U.S. taxpayers? Further, shouldn’t people who pay more taxes be given greater privilege in terms of the level of access they get? Further, considering that most taxpayers would not be interested in reading medical and health-related research, doesn’t this effectively subsidize researchers at the cost of publishers, while keeping the majority of taxpayers exactly where they are?

The taxpayer argument doesn’t seem to be a very strong argument logically, but I think it carries good moral and emotional overtones, which is why it is touted so much.

A more valid reason is the argument that opening up the findings of research creates very strong positive externalities for further research. Thus, a lot of other researchers can benefit from opened up research and thus benefit science, even though these researchers would not have found it personally worth it to subscribe to the journal. Further, science papers, once freely available, can be used by people who may not have tried them out in the past, such as high school students, people with health problems, and others. (more…)

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