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Access approved? The Government’s response to the Finch review

Posted By Spencer Thompson

16 July 2012

Today the government announced its response to the Finch report on widening access to research findings, accepting all but one of the recommendations, meaning that in the near future all taxpayer-funded research will be immediately available for free public access. This commitment to openness in academic research is highly welcome, and whilst there are issues around the roadmap for transition to a fully open access regime, the UK should be applauded for being a genuine world leader in this area.

Currently access to research findings is primarily through scholarly journals, with the cost of access falling on readers. Therefore research libraries have to devote large proportions of their budgets to journal subscriptions. The change announced today will shift the cost towards the authors of academic research, with the findings then available for anyone to access for free. This so-called ‘Gold access regime’ preserves in the short-term the current network of players in the markets, with large academic publishers like Elsevier still performing an intermediary function between authors and readers. Whilst there are some real concerns that the unchanged science budget will be hit by this shift in the source of funding, the benefits in terms of much greater and cheaper access, from business, university libraries and individuals, will hopefully outweigh any issues. The benefits of this kind of open access is that it will facilitate the movement of knowledge to where it is most valuable and most likely to be used for social and economic benefit. Future work in this area needs to also help the translation of research knowledge to a non-specialist audience.

This shouldn’t be viewed as the last word on open access, however. At the Big Innovation Centre we are currently acting as an incubator for the public interest company Knowledge Unlatched, who are bringing together publishers and academics to collaboratively work on a new model for open access publishing of academic monographs. Currently academic publishing tends to mirror the print world in a digital form, with little extra value-added through digital content. The exciting thing about Knowledge Unlatched is that their model allows for different levels of access to content, from the ‘vanilla’ level of standard text and graphs, to a wider range of surrounding digital services like video presentations and datasets, as well as print editions. This model mirrors similar developments in other industries such as music and journalism, where business models are increasingly adapting to provide extra value-added through accompanying resources beyond just the underlying content.

Open access to academic research is definitely a good thing, and today’s announcement is welcome. But policymakers should not rest on their laurels, and need to be open to future disruptive changes to the business model of academic publishing. Making the UK’s knowledge-creating research base connect up fully with value-generating business and enterprise is vital for the UK to become the kind of innovative economy it needs to be, and this is an excellent step in that direction.

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