What an issue! It sits at the heart of academia, society, and manages to pull in a bewildering array of issues from the state of the academy to the role of government in academic research and the nature of ownership of that research’s results. I have a general observation and a follow-up of a more particular and personal nature.
With regard to open-access scholarship and government funding. I have been of the opinion that research (often scientific) that was government funded should be made publicly available. This makes intuitive sense – the government used taxpayer dollars to help create a good (the research) which will, ideally, lead to societal improvements of some sort. Allowing that research to be openly available increases the likelihood that the taxpayer will realize a benefit for their investment. However, we regularly fund all manner of companies, programs, etc. through the government that do not have a direct positive impact and which are under no further control or access by the public. Farming subsidies, tax breaks for corporations or non-profit groups, etc. All of these have been granted because there is an assumed benefit to society worth the tax money spent to support them, but once spent the taxpayer has no further control over the results. Oil companies are not required to make the results of exploration public, they are not required to reveal the results of their R&D public, etc. Farmers who receive subsidies are not required to allow gleaning and non-profits that receive government funding or tax breaks are not obliged to make their work publicly available. So why is academic research different? In my opinion, it’s not, but it’s the other systems that need to be fixed as well. Why treat academic research differently? Instead, it’s time to even the playing field. If there were more strings attached to taxpayer’s dollars than perhaps fewer people would want them, and we would be left with both a lower burden on the taxpayer and more public benefits for those dollars that were spent.
On a more personal note. I have both edited for and published some of my work in an online, open-access undergraduate research journal (Vexillum: An Undergraduate Journal for Classical and Medieval Studies; http://www.vexillumjournal.org/vexillumjournal/index.php/Vexillum). I was proud to have my work made available after being reviewed, edited and improved on in a professional manner. Recently though, I came across an unpublished manuscript with the potential for some very interesting follow-on research. What followed was a fascinating internal debate over whether I should immediately post the information I had found and try to leverage the internet’s crowd-sourcing potential to move forward or horde the data to myself, ask more discreetly around the professors I am studying with, and utilize a more traditional approach. In the end, I went with the latter. Why? Because it wasn’t just about the freedom of information, it was about my future. The way the system works right now, there’s nothing to keep someone else from finding that manuscript that I posted online, taking my initial thoughts (not that they were wildly insightful) and *gasp* publishing first! Should such happen, I’m out the potential for an early leg up in this cut-throat academic world. If I went with the information online what do I get out of it? Some potential gain, but a great deal of risk. Until the system of the academy is completely overhauled and its system of rewards re-vamped, there is little hope that things will change.