Saturday, April 13, 2013

Publishing Futures 1: reasons for going open access

I've been asked to blog for the upcoming Forget the book: Writing in the Age of Digital Publishing event at Goldsmiths on the 25th of May. This one may not make the cut . . .

Improving the flows of the information and knowledge that researchers produce will promote
* enhanced transparency, openness and accountability, and public engagement with research;
* closer linkages between research and innovation, with benefits for public policy and services, and for economic growth;
* improved efficiency in the research process itself, through increases in the amount of information that is readily accessible, reductions in the time spent in finding it, and greater use of the latest tools and services to organise, manipulate and analyse it; and
* increased returns on the investments made in research, especially the investments from public funds. These are the motivations behind the growth of the world-wide open access movement.

These are the terms of the 2012 Finch report, by the UK government advisory Working Group on Expanding Access to Published Research Findings.

I much doubt that the four themes listed are those which motivate the open-access movement, depending on just how (Stallman or Raymond) you define openness.

There are two controversies lurking behind the first bullet. One is the right of the public to decide on the value of research. The other concerns the transparency of data demanded ad absurdum by climate change opponents in the dubious case of the UEA email leak. The former begs the question of who exactly is, or speaks for, the public; the latter asks both whether peer-review by experts of expert analysis needs to be supplemented (or supplanted) by a jury of interested parties (interested in the Kantian sense).

The second and fourth concern the link between funded research and economic benefit. Stiegler is not alone among philosophers in noting that innovation describes a process of minor adaptations to an existing paradigm. Invention is a radical breakthrough. It is hard not to hear the fury of corporations – whose R and D departments failed to invent the world wide web – that the web, a product of publicly funded research, was not delivered to them for commercialisation. Tim Berners-Lee's decision to give away the source code was, in that perspective, irresponsible. This example alone should persuade us that the Finch report is not describing the open access movement as a whole.

The third point, about organising and analysing research results, has the most attraction. It is not only that articles held on commercial databases like Elsevier are restricted to subscribers; it is also that search engines and more sophisticated spiders and bots cannot mine them. But even here the cult of efficiency has a faint tang of corporate culture.

Actually what motivates open access campaigns are
* the belief that ideas are improved by speed and breadth of circulation, and that the greed-driven oxymoron 'intellectual property' slows down of the system
* the idea that ideas are valuable, if they are valuable at all, because they help feed, clothe, educate, shelter, bring justice, peace and beauty, and because they make it possible for us all to debate which of these values is best and how to balance out their claims: not because they can be converted into cash
* an absolute commitment to making research available to those who are its sources, too often its victims, and in any case who will be its ultimate beneficiaries, especially those who cannot afford to get at it under current conditions
* a generalised feeling of good-will and generosity in the interests of creating a decent world, especially for the global poor. Many people in open-access worlds believe that the current economic system has failed monumentally, and that open, cashless economies of peer-to-peer exchange is an increasingly viable alternative.

So let's just get that one straight.

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