Open Access Reshaping Rules of Research

My weekly Law Bytes column (Toronto Star version, homepage version) focuses on the growing global demand for open access, a trend that is forcing researchers, publishers, universities, and funding agencies to reconsider their role in the creation and dissemination of knowledge.

For years, the research model remained relatively static.  In Canada, federal funding agencies in the sciences, social sciences, and health sciences doled out hundreds of millions of dollars each year to support research at Canadian universities.  University researchers typically published their findings in expensive, peer-reviewed publications, which were purchased by those same publicly-funded universities.  
The model certainly proved lucrative for large publishers, yet resulted in the public paying twice for research that it was frequently unable to access.  Cancer patients seeking information on new treatments or parents searching for the latest on childhood development issues were often denied access to the research they indirectly fund through their tax dollars.

The emergence of the Internet dramatically changes the equation.   Researchers are increasingly choosing to publish in freely available, open access journals posted on the Internet, rather than in conventional, subscription-based publications.  The Directory of Open Access Journals, a Swedish project that links to open access journals in all disciplines, currently lists more than 2,500 open access journals worldwide featuring over 127,000 articles.

For those researchers committed to traditional publication, open access principles mandate that they self-archive their work by depositing an electronic copy in freely available institutional repositories shortly after publication.  This approach grants the public full access to the work, while retaining the current peer-reviewed conventional publication model.

While today this self-archiving approach is typically optional, a growing number of funding agencies are moving toward a mandatory requirement.  These include the National Institutes of Health in the U.S., the Wellcome Trust in the United Kingdom, and the Australian Research Council.  Moreover, some countries are considering legislatively mandating open access.

Notwithstanding the momentum toward open access, several barriers remain.  First, many conventional publishers actively oppose open access, fearful that it will cut into their profitability.  Indeed, soon after the launch of the European petition, Nature reported that publishers were preparing to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to counter open access support with a message that equates public access to government censorship.

Second, many universities and individual researchers have been slow to adopt open access with only a limited number of universities worldwide having established institutional repositories to facilitate deposit of research by their faculty.  Athabasca University is the sole Canadian university to establish both a repository and a policy requesting that faculty submit electronic copies of all publications.

Third, Canadian funding agencies are increasingly at risk of falling behind their counterparts around the world by dragging their heels on open access.  With the notable exceptions of the Canadian Institute of Health Research and the International Development Research Agency, which last year introduced proposals to require open access for their funded research, Canada's major funding agencies have been slow to move on the issue.  Neither the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, nor the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, which together have an annual budget over $1 billion, are anywhere near incorporating open access requirements into their funding policies.

The failure to lead on this issue could have long-term negative consequences for Canadian research. Given the connection between research and economic prosperity, the time has come for the federal government, its funding agencies, and the Canadian research community to maximize the public's investment in research by prioritizing open access.

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