Friday, 10 February 2012

Profoundly in Love with Pandora

The Guardian reported last week on the squall that has blown up around Elsevier because of its support for the retrograde legislation that is currently making its way through the US Congress. The Research Works Act, in the words of Wikipedia, 'contains provisions to prohibit open access mandates for federally funded research [and] would also severely restrict the sharing of scientific data.'


3000 academics have already signed a petition pledging to boycott Elsevier. They are objecting not only to Elsevier's support for the legislation, but also to the business model that the company uses, which is based around charging 'exorbitantly high' subscription bundles, which include titles that many libraries don't want.


This isn't an issue confined to America. Open access has slowly been making inroads in the UK. Wellcome now expects all funded investigators to make their outputs freely accessible, and the Research Councils have a similar expectation.


This week Prof Stephen Curry of Imperial added to the storm by refusing to review an article for Elsevier. Interestingly Elsevier themselves commented on his blog post, and one can understand their point of view: 'putting an article online for free has economic consequences for the publisher because it effectively takes away returns that a publisher earns from all the value it has added and the investment it has made. So it does have the potential to make a journal unsustainable, and thus negatively impact the research community that relies on it.'


However, in this information age I'm not sure this Pandora's Box can be repacked. Maybe Pandora's Box is the wrong analogy; it suggests the release of evil, whereas Open Access is, I think, the release of good. Like the internet it offers unparalleled openness and freedom, a potential for knowledge and advances that would have been the stuff of dreams for previous generations. Of course, there will be losers as well as winners in this, victims as well as beneficiaries. But it doesn't make sense for Elsevier or the US Congress to try and stand in the way of this and - to use another analogy - act like Cnuts and hold back the tide.

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