David Willetts and the Global Intellectual Commons

3 05 2012

David Willetts, the UK’s Science Minister, had endorsed the open-access movement in academic publishing.  See here, here, and here. Indeed, he did so in a speech to the Publishers Association, the lobby group that represents some of the companies that are currently in the business of academic publishing. Willetts has enlisted the services of Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, who will help with the details of a system that will make all taxpayer-funded academic research in Britain available online to anyone who wants to read or use it. The theory is that taxpayers have a right to read the research their money has paid for.

One of the issues that Willetts is confronting is the free-rider problem: if one research-producing country, in this case the UK, makes academic research a public good by putting it on the internet for everyone to see, citizens of other countries will be able to take advantage of their generosity will continue to charge people in the UK to read their research.

Willetts said:

“There are clear trade-offs. If those funding research pay open-access journals in advance, where will this leave individual researchers who can’t cover the cost? If we improve the world’s access to British research, what might we get in response?”

I understand why Willetts would say this, but I think that his concerns are misplaced. First, making it easier for foreigners to read and cite British research will increase the collective global impact factor of British academics. Second, Britain may build up goodwill in the world by putting its research online for free.  The BBC World Service and the BBC website add immensely to Britain’s soft power in the world. Third, showcasing academic research online would be great advertising for British universities, which crave the income that foreign students bring. (Higher education is one of Britain’s leading exports). Lastly and most importantly, the world of intellectual inquiry is not a zero-sum game. If, say, a British biologist puts some information online that helps a researcher in India to do something that contributes to the finding a cure for cancer, British taxypayers, at least those who have cancer, will benefit.

David Willetts also said

“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 forefront of openresearch. The challenge is how we get there without ruining the value added by academic publishers.”

This is absolutely correct. The employees of Elsevier and the other much-vilified companies that publish academic research behind paywalls do add value beyond that supplied by the authors of articles on the unpaid volunteers who do peer review. For one thing, the copyediting done by these corporations makes research look more presentable.  It is entirely right and proper that these firms be compensated for this service. The question is whether they should be compensated via the people who read academic articles or by the taxpayer. The UK is a net exporter of academic research, which adds tens of millions to the UK’s current account each year.

What we have right now with the academic journals hidden behind Jstor and other paywalls is a tragedy of the anti-commons. I’ve always looked at the Academic Spring (and the whole issue of IP more generally) through the lens of the literature on the tragedy of the anti-commons. A great book on this issue is Michael Heller’s The Gridlock Economy  How Too Much Ownership Wrecks Markets, Stops Innovation, and Costs Live.

Collectively, we would all be better off if we turned this anti-commons into a global commons.  However, it is also fair that we compensate existing stakeholders, including the academic publishing industry, as we move from one regime to another. In fact, doing so is politically expedient, for without the promise of compensation, the stakeholders will fight hard to preserve the status quo.

One hopes that the Finch Working Group  comes up with a model that is both fair and efficient.

You can read more here.

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18 01 2013
Some Thoughts on Aaron Swartz, Open Access, and the Future of Historical Research « The Past Speaks

[…] I have blogged extensively about the Open Access movement in academic publishing. (See here, here, and here). […]

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