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ResearchBlogging.orgAn article entitled University Public-Access Mandates are Good for Science by David Shulenburger was published in PLoS Biology this week. It is a great read, and a topic I feel passionate about. As the article states:

“Not many taxpayers know what university faculty are doing. In fact, not many university administrators or even other faculty know what research their colleagues are performing. This veil over faculty research may contribute to the 20-year trend of declining real per-student subsidy from states to their institutions of higher education.”

This is partly because many of us scientists are not good communicators to begin with, but also because we publish our data in specialist journals that are not readily and freely accessible to the general public. But what would happen when we do put it out in the open?

’Suddenly the invisible campus becomes a place populated by individuals researching topics relevant to the average citizen. Legislators who complain about faculty productivity would find their arguments more difficult to sustain. Donors and potential donors might even alter their gift-giving based on such searches.’

This is the key, especially considering that both my (and my colleague’s) salary and research expenses are paid for by taxpayers and individual donors. Accountability and transparency should be expected of academic researchers as much as it is expected from other branches of public service. Do taxpayers, after all, not have the right to have access to the information that is generated from their investment, or are they to accept a version that is filtered through the lenses of PR offices and newspapers? Importantly, among the public with limited access are the policy makers and local GPs.

There are other consequences to access to scientific literature that impact on the research itself:

’Surveying 2,157 US scientists in 2007, Stephen Hansen of the American Association for the Advancement of Science found that 29% of respondents said that their own research had been affected by difficulties in gaining access to or disseminating copyrighted scientific literature.”

And later on the article:

“The only solution that gives science the maximum chance for advancement is one that ensures that all science findings are available to all researchers.”

Public access mandates have now been adopted by funding agencies such as the National Institutes of Health of the USA, the Wellcome Trust, among others. However, New Zealand funding agencies have not yet taken the step to adopt similar mandates to ensure that the science generated in New Zealand and funded by New Zealanders be made publicly accessible.

Much has been said and continues to be said about Open Access, and this article is another one to add to the reading list. I would argue that aside from the issues that centre on the accessibility of data there are issues arising from the copyright agreements with many scientific journals that limit the dissemination of science (even one’s own) and have potential legal implications. But that is a topic for another post.
David Shulenburger (2009). University Public-Access Mandates Are Good for Science PLoS Biology, 7 (11) e1000237