Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Open access science

The UK's publicly-funded scientific research is going open access.

This is a Very Good Thing.  And I'm quite impressed that the UK government has been pretty decisive about this; I was emailed by the MRC (my main funder) a while ago, telling me that publishing in an open access way was now a condition of funding.

Leaving aside the potential practical complications in making this happen (which other people have considered more than I have),  why is this such a good thing?  There are a number of reasons.

Firstly, there's the basic consideration of who's paying.  In this case, it's the tax-paying UK public.  So it seems entirely reasonable that they should have access to the research that they've paid for.  It actually seems faintly ridiculous that this was ever not the case (although this was because pre-Web, the cost of distribution wasn't insignificant).

Secondly, and very importantly, it accelerates the pace of scientific research (which relates to this blog post).  When I write a scientific paper, I want it to be accessible as rapidly as possible to as many people as possible, and as easy to access as possible.  This means that my research can be read, assessed and acted upon as rapidly as possible, which means that people can benefit from my work and/or find ways to refine the ideas therein.  Faster is better.

Thirdly, there's a very important consideration of public engagement with science.  Science and scientific research are getting more and more complex with time, both because we're already discovered a lot of the easy stuff and also because we come up with progressively more clever ways in which to advance.  This is great, but it does mean that it's increasingly difficult for the non-specialist to understand a lot of the good science that goes on.  There are all sorts of efforts that are going on to try to address this, but one really good one is to try to make sure that anyone can access any piece of research.

My anecdotal view is that governments are in general pretty rubbish at having a clue about internet-related developments.  Politicians are very busy people, making it hard to keep up with developments.  I also suspect that the demographic profile of the current generation of politicians means there is a high proportion of Hapless Techno Weenies.  But in this instance, they seem to have correctly identified an important internet trend and acted on it.  Kudos for that.

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