10 March 2009

Free Our Books: Extending Open Access

I've written much about open access on this blog; but generally that's been about open access to articles in academic journals. Another huge class of material paid for by the taxpayer is academic books. So, applying the same logic as for articles, shouldn't we all have free access to digital copies? That's what Free Our Books thinks:

Public funds pay vast majority of the academic research; the results should therefore be public. Inexpensive electronic publishing should make this possible. But private publishing companies still own these results, and restrict access to them by charging exorbitant fees. In the case of academic journals, publishing companies are making huge profits by requiring publicly funded universities to pay very high subscription fees on behalf of students and academics.

We, the citizens, through the state, pay for the production of academic books and research papers twice, first through salaries and research grants, and second through the purchase of books and journal subscriptions. This is how the the most fundamental principles of academia, to study and to share its findings, are obstructed, and its operation is made far more expensive and cumbersome. Good news is that this has been partially recognised and Research Councils UK (RCUK) has pushed hard (2005) in the direction of both mandatory self archiving (2006) of all research outputs and open access in general.

When it comes to books, the argument, however, isn't as simple and as straight forwad as in the case of Guardian's campaign Free Our Data - whose name we're reusing. Nor has it been problematised widely, like it has been in the case of journals and RCUK recommendations. Significant contribution of editors, subeditors, proofreaders and other working on texts being produced (wages) and personal gain of authors of best selling works (share of sales) complicates the issue. In short, open access and self-archiving of publicly funded books, whose importance for social sciences and humanities is enormous (unlike in physics and maths) is yet to be widely discussed and there aren't immidiately obvious solutions visible. That is, unless we treat books, as we think we should, as just another form of research output - both when funded directly by one of RCUK councils, or by the individual universities.

(Via Open Access News.)

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