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'Academic Spring' Continues With Commentary on Open Access in the U.K.
Posted On May 14, 2012
As the open access (OA) movement gathers steam and garners attention outside of the academic and library communities, David Willetts, the U.K. Minister of State for Universities and Science, contributed to the dialogue with a speech presented on May 2 at the Publishers Association’s annual meeting and a companion opinion piece published in The Guardian on May 1. Most of his comments reiterated strong support from the U.K. government for making research outputs publicly accessible as a means of enabling innovation and emphasized that the question is no longer whether to make research publicly accessible, but how to do it in a viable, sustainable way. He did, however, introduce a new addition to the U.K. government’s strategy by bringing in Wikipedia’s co-founder, Jimmy Wales, as an adviser, specifically to address issues of reusability and collaboration. Willetts’ remarks are the latest commentary over the past few weeks that many have begun to dub “the academic spring” in the form of uproar from scholars, universities, policymakers, research funding agencies, and others demanding a new model for scholarly communication to fund research publications, disseminate research findings, and enable new types of research and analysis on research outputs.

Willetts’ speech at the Publishers’ Association meeting started by praising the U.K.’s “outstanding science and research capacity” and noting the economic and cultural benefits of such intellectual activity. However, his speech quickly turned to the current model for scholarly communication:

We understand that academic research is not a sausage machine where you simply put public money in one end and count the patents and peer-reviewed articles that come out the other end. Instead we think of it as an ecosystem with subtle and intricate interdependences.

He acknowledged the key role publishers play by facilitating peer review and noting that it is a “crucial part of the research process.” But then he went on to explain that peer review without public access is no longer sufficient: “We need to have far more research material freely available, and we need to be better at editing and sorting it. The challenge is to discharge both of these crucial functions better.”

Willetts explained the government’s perspective:

Our starting point is very simple. The Coalition is committed to the principle of public access to publicly-funded research results. That is where both technology and contemporary culture are taking us. It is how we can maximise the value and impact generated by our excellent research base. As taxpayers put their money towards intellectual enquiry, they cannot be barred from then accessing it. They should not be kept outside with their noses pressed to the window—whilst, inside, the academic community produces research in an exclusive space. The Government believes that published research material which has been publicly financed should be publicly accessible—and that principle goes well beyond the academic community.

While Willetts indicated that the government still does not have all aspects of an implementation plan in place, he outlined two activities already under development:

1) An independent working group, The Working Group on Expanding Access, chaired by Dame Judy Finch, was commissioned in 2011 and is “examining key issues of principle and practice that would be involved in increasing access to published outputs via the routes of, respectively, (i) greater take-up of open-access publishing, (ii) open-access repositories and (iii) development of national licensing.” The Working Group is expected to report its findings this spring, and it will serve as the foundation for further next steps.

2) Funding is already in place for the development of a U.K. “Gateway to Research” (GTR) web-based portal that will “enable greater public access to Research-Council funded research information and simplify networking between researchers and SMEs.” It is scheduled for launch in 2013.

It is this second activity in which Jimmy Wales from Wikipedia will serve as an adviser. While few details are available at this time about the portal, Willetts indicated that the team is “working to ensure that information is presented in a readily reusable form, using common formats and open standards and helping to make sure that the new government-funded portal for accessing research really promotes collaboration.”

Willetts closed by emphasizing that “Open access is not an end in itself, it is a means to an end. That end is improved popular involvement with the quite extraordinary output of our research community ... At the end of this we can hope to see science and research brought closer to the wider public.”

Willetts also noted the international nature of the scholarly research ecosystem; while these remarks were aimed at U.K. publishers in particular, the dialogue about such issues has been international in scope and other recent events in the “academic spring” have emphasized its global nature. In April, Neelie Kroes, the vice president of the European Commission responsible for the Digital Agenda, addressed the European Federation of Academies of Sciences and Humanities Annual Meeting (Rome, Italy, April 11, 2012) where she noted that “we are just now beginning to realise how significant a transformation of science the openness enabled by ICT infrastructures can mean. We start the era of open science.” In regards to the traditional model of scholarly communication, she remarked that it does not mean that “a model dating back hundreds of years is still the right one for the internet age.”

Throughout the world, researchers have joined together to boycott serving as peer reviewers for Elseviers journals. As of May 12, more than 11,000 scholars had signed the boycott. In another statement against the current scholarly communication model, Harvard University’s Faculty Advisory Council sent an email to the Harvard faculty on April 17 with the subject: “Major Periodical Subscriptions Cannot Be Sustained.” The council explained: “We write to communicate an untenable situation facing the Harvard Library. Many large journal publishes have made the scholarly communication environment fiscally unsustainable and academically restrictive.”

The combination of all of these high-profile statements in support of OA combined with the latest wave of academics refusing to support traditional business models for scholarly communication is shifting the discussion from the domain of libraries to a much broader base including independent researchers, small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) involved in research, government entities, and mainstream media outlets. But as Willetts noted, “perhaps the most important question is how we get from here to there. We have to work out, with you [publishers], how to manage any transition, and it’s particularly tricky in an open international environment.” 

Abby Clobridge is the founder of and principal consultant at FireOak Strategies (formerly Clobridge Consulting), a boutique firm specializing in knowledge management, information management, and open knowledge (open access, open data, open education). Abby has worked with a wide range of organizations throughout the world, including various United Nations agencies; private sector companies; colleges and research universities; nonprofit, intergovernmental, and multi-stakeholder organizations; and the news media. She can be found on Twitter (@aclobridge).

Email Abby Clobridge

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