Monday, September 05, 2005

Open Access: For Maximum Value, Share With All

One of the reasons why open access to the scholarly research articles just makes sense is because much of the research is funded by taxpayer dollars. At first glance, it might appear to make sense to provide access only to the taxpayers in your own country. However, there is a very special quality about scholarly knowledge; it gains in value the more it is used. There are many reasons why our scholarly research articles provide the most value to us, when we share them with everyone around the world.

For example, if people in a neighbouring country read what our researchers have learned about how to protect or repair the environment, there is a good chance that the winds and waters that cross our borders will be a little cleaner.

Most science advances as a series of steps, like building blocks or putting together a puzzle. One researcher conducts an experiment and learns a little; others build on this knowledge. Let's say our goal is to cure a particular type of cancer. We fund some research on the topic. We give away the results. A researcher in another country reads the results, and conducts more research. By sharing our research results openly, we have in effect expanded the research team - at no additional cost to our own taxpayers. Open sharing leverages the tax dollars, so that what we invest in research yields more - for everyone, including for us. By sharing the results openly with all, we all move forwards to the cure for that type of cancer just a little faster.

Knowledge is something we all build together. The mapping of the human genome occured in record speed, precisely because researchers in many countries shared their knowledge openly, and worked collaboratively. What might happen if we used the same approach to some of the other puzzles we all face in common, such as figuring out what to do about global warming? Given the urgency of this particular puzzle, why not openly share all the results of any relevant research, just as soon as they are available?

Update September 6:

This update reflects and builds onPeter Suber's writings on the topic of the National Research Council's program of free access for Canadians to NRC Press journals - recommended reading - in Issue # 65, Sept. 2003 of the SPARC Open Access Newsletter.

First, I would like to add to Peter's comments that the NRC's provision of access to NRC journals to Canadians through the depository services program was never meant to be an experiment in open access. Rather, it is an extension of the depository services program itself (which provides free or very low-cost information of various kinds produced by the Canadian government, to designated depository libraries, as a services to Canadians) to the electronic realm.

In strictly economic terms, at first glance it might appear as if a subscription-based approach would cost less. A more careful analysis, however, is needed. As Peter points out, the apparent cost-recovery of a subscription-based approach needs to take into account the costs of authentication and subscription tracking. That is to say: it costs money to have and develop systems which keep track of who is and is not allowed to use a resource, and it costs money to troubleshoot when authentication mechanisms fail. For example, in order to allow access to all Canadians, Canadian libraries must supply IP addresses, and resubmit whenever their IP addresses change. Anytime an IP address changes and the database has not been updated, Canadians experience difficulties in connecting. A subscription-based system requires tracking subscriptions, invoicing and much more complex accounting than an open access subsidized (single payer, most efficient accounting) system. So, even in cost/benefit terms, this analysis needs to be done before we can ascertain for certain whether it does actually cost the taxpayer more.

Let's look at this on a global basis. What is the cost of subsidizing open access to Canadian publications, in comparison with the cost of purchasing access to the results of research conducted in every other country? I would be very surprised if cost-recovery (if indeed, there is cost recovery after the administration costs are deducted) from external subscriptions to Canadian journals would meet the costs of purchasing by subscription the research results of even one other country - never mind the world!

Secondly, as noted above, the dollars of the Canadian taxpayer are leveraged when our research results are given away. We get help with the research problems of interest to Canadians (others build on what we have started); when others apply what we have learned, we too live in a better world (e.g., less pollution for us when our neighbours employ what we have learned about protecting the environment); when Canadian researchers have more impact, receive more prizes, etc., Canada as a whole benefits from the enhanced prestige; and giving away our research increases the odds of attracting investment, to operationalize those good Canadian ideas.

To sum, my conclusions are that open access to the world, not just our own country, is the most economically efficient approach (by far), also, open access is essential to deliver optimal value to the taxpayers who have funded the research.

This post reflects my personal opinion only and does not represent the opinions or policy of the BC Electronic Library Network or the Simon Fraser University Library.

This post reflects my personal opinion only and does not represent the opinions or policy of the BC Electronic Library Network or the Simon Fraser University Library.

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