Friday, January 13, 2012

Open Access: What's the Big Deal?

There is currently a lot of discussion about open-access to academic literature. A lot of people seem to be really passionate about the issue. I agree with Gans that the fact that much research is publicly funded does not mean that the public should be able to access it free of charge. Though the major commercial journal publishers do seem to have high rates of profit, the services they provide still do have costs. One could argue that these oligopolists need to be regulated, though I think that their profits will not be maintained forever.

But is access to scientific literature so limited that government should be funding or mandating free access? The fact is that it should usually be possible to get a free copy of any article. In economics and in disciplines such as physics, most papers also exist in preprint form available for free (though the NBER still charges $5 a paper for some reason...). If you check out the information on the SHERPA/RoMEO website you'll find that many publishers including Elsevier, allow authors to put a final version of the paper on their institution's website.* Of course, a lot of authors don't do this. But if you don't and could, it seems hypocritical to complain about the lack of open access. And, of course, an increasing number of open-access journals are being published. Finally, most authors will be happy to e-mail you a copy of their paper.

The main issue, apart from the lack of convenience where direct open-access isn't available, would seem to be the archival literature. A lot is included in JSTOR. Their per article fees are lower than commercial publishers but still $10 a paper.

* A lot of these, plus "illegal" copies are available through Google Scholar. The ARC for example mandates publishing through open access or archiving publications in institutional repositories.

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