It has been a slow but steady move to make scholarship freely available
Most of us spend a few hundred rupees a year on the magazines we buy for leisure reading or for keeping abreast of current affairs. But if you are a scientist,you may be shelling out a few thousand rupees for the journal your professional society publishes for its members. Of course,if you are a serious researcher,you may have to read or refer to many journals,not two or three. And you will depend on your institutions library for those journals.
Till 20-30 years ago,most academic libraries,at least in the West,did not find it difficult to subscribe to most journals needed by the scientists in their institutions. Then things started changing and journal subscription prices started skyrocketing some costing $20,000-40,000 leading to what librarians call the serials crisis. Much of the price rise was caused by commercial publishers,such as Elsevier,Springer and Wiley. These three control most of the 24,000 science,technology and medicine journals and publish more than 40 per cent of all journal articles today. Elsevier reported a profit of 37 per cent of its revenue in 2011 (up from 36 per cent in 2010); the profit of the other two is no less than 30 per cent despite the recession.
A few years ago,academic librarians,even in the US,had to cut down their budgets for books and monographs to keep journal subscriptions going. Early this year,Harvard,reputed to have the richest endowment among universities,announced that it was finding it to difficult to hold on to its subscriptions and requested its faculty to publish their work in open access journals which would be free to read and to resign from publications that keep articles behind paywalls. The irony of it all was summed up nicely by Professor Robert Darnton,director of libraries at Harvard: We faculty do the research,write the papers,referee papers by other researchers,serve on editorial boards,all of it for free,and then we buy back the results of our labour at outrageous prices.
A few months ago,a Fields Medal winner,mathematician Timothy Gowers of Cambridge,made it publicly known that he had stopped publishing in,refereeing for and being on the editorial boards of journals published by Elsevier. Gowers created a website called The Cost of Knowledge and close to 11,000 scientists from around the world have signed it already,pledging to boycott Elsevier journals.
Cost,however,is only part of the issue. A more serious issue is the exclusive control enjoyed by publishers over how research gets distributed and shared. They demand that authors surrender copyright to the papers they publish and use it to throttle scholarly communication and hinder the progress of science. It is common sense that if we make scholarly information freely available it will reach a larger audience and help advance further research and lead to wider economic benefits.
The boycott had a salutary effect. Elsevier withdrew its lobbying for the rather absurd Research Works Act,which,if passed in the US Congress,would kill public access to federally funded research and reverse the mandate of the National Institutes of Health putting in one go all the 21 million freely available records in the PubMed library into a fee-to-see system.
Long before Gowerss boycott of Elsevier and Harvards request to its faculty,there have been many stellar initiatives to usher in an era of open access to science and scholarship. For example,all seven research councils in the UK have mandated open access to research funded by them. So has the Wellcome Trust,the worlds largest private-sector funder of life science research. Apart from these funder mandates,there are many institutional mandates,including the ones at ICRISAT,Hyderabad,the National Institute of Oceanography,Goa,and the National Institute of Technology,Rourkela. All these developments have been meticulously chronicled by the philosophy professor,Peter Suber,in the US and the technology writer,Richard Poynder,in the UK.
Recently,the British government enlisted the cooperation of Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales to help make all taxpayer-funded academic research in Britain available online to anyone who wants to read or use it. Says David Willetts,minister for universities and science: Giving people the right to roam freely over publicly funded research will usher in a new era of academic discovery and collaboration,and will put the UK at the very forefront of open research.
In India,though,there appears to be very little enthusiasm among the leaders of the science establishment. Neither the office of the principal scientific adviser nor the department of science and technology seems to have shown any interest in mandating open access to taxpayer-funded research. The National Knowledge Commission has recommended mandating open access to all publicly funded research,but it is not clear who will implement the recommendation. Right now,it is left to individuals to promote open access in India.
The writer is with the Centre for Internet and Society,Bangalore