Willetts, research, open access -- and wiki
I find myself in a dliemma about David Willetts's latest pronouncement about free access on-line to publicly finded research -- not unlike my dilemma about podcasts, I guess. There is certainly something in what he says: the public purse funds pricey research which then ends up being published in journals that even the richest of UK universities can barely afford to buy.
What could possibly be right in that? And why on earth throw more money after the likes of Elsevier and the other big publishers? Just to give an example or two: an individual annual subscription to the International Journal of Obesity is £2840, and an institutional subscription to Nature ( a pretty basic scientific journal) for a school or university with under 2999 students is £3682 per annum (and add £666 if you would also like Scientific American).
So far so good.. and we can all think that this can't be good sense. But, if I've got the right end of the stick. the problem with Willetts' s bright idea (as with all well-intentioned, half baked ideas) is that one size doesnt fit all, and what goes for Nature doesnt go across the board.
I, for example, am on the editorial committee of the Journal of Roman Studies, which is produced by the Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies, a 'learned society' established in 1910. For £46 a year a full member gets the JRS, as well as a series of meetings and lectures, plus free access to a Library in London (as well as the possibility of borrowing books by post). That Library is partly subsidizing by the Journal -- and a majot research hub for everyone in the field. Add to that the fact that anyone who submits an article to JRS gets its reviewed (with detailed comments) by at least two senior scholars in the field, who get no payment for their time.
A student subscription for an online copy of the Journal only, but with all other privileges, is just £25 a year.
It looks a bargain, honestly.
How it would work under Willetts's scheme I really dont know. Would we only be able to take articles that had NOT been publicly funded? And how do we recognise those... if I did half of it on AHRC leave, and the other half of it not, how does that count?
And anyway, I am not sure that I follow the idea that everything publicly funded should be free at point of use. I mean we pay for NHS prescriptions and for entry to English Heritage sites... why should it be entirely wrong to get access to the fruits of publicly funded research for a modest fee? (I'm not talking of the £3000 subscription per annum... I'm talking of the low cost JRS, and all the other modest humanities journals, who run for very little money on a lot of good will.)
And what does this say for the future of academic monograph publishing... where likewise there are some terrible rip-offs, and some extraordinary reasonable "value added" inputs.
As for bringing in Jimmy Wales as special guru, words fail me. Sure, I quite often link to wiki artcles on this blog (as I have just done), but that's because I trust you to recognise the unreliable information. But wiki is notoriously error-struck (how else could it be?)... hard to see it as a model for any form of high quality academic dissemination.