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Open access… Canada?

Today marked a major milestone for open science. Specifically, the Obama administration announced a directive that all US federal agencies which receive over $100 million in funds for research and development work on creating a plan to ensure open access to all research outputs within a reasonable time frame.

To quote from the Obama administration memorandum:

“To achieve the Administration’s commitment to increase access to federally funded published research and digital scientific data, Federal agencies investing in research and development must have clear and coordinated policies for increasing such access.”

You can read more about it here, and here.

A number of other countries, including Canada, have mandatory open access policies for some of their taxpayer-funded research, but for the most part the policies apply to health-related research. And in many cases you can also find research stemming directly from federal scientists freely available on the web.

In some cases (e.g. the UK and Australia and a few others) open access is mandated for all federally funded research. And now that the US has taken this step to full openness, I think that it’s fair to say that there is a lot of pressure on countries that haven’t done the same to get moving down that track.

I’m looking at you, Canada!

Like many other countries on that list, Canada has some mandatory open access policies, but they mainly pertain to health sciences. There have been rumblings of more openness from the Canadian government, as noted by one of my Twitter contacts:

…but the steps taken by the UK, Australia, and now the US are good indicators that Canada’s steps so far have been baby steps at best. It’s time for that to change.

Why should we, as Canadians, call for a mandatory open access policy for all federally funded research? Here, in brief, are a few reasons that come to mind, and I know that there are more:

  • Fairness. Taxpayers paid for the research. Why should they also have to pay to access the results of the research?
  • Open access accelerates the pace of discovery. Although I’m at a small university, the UNBC library is well-stocked with many journals that the folks in my research program and I use. But we occasionally come across articles that we need that are unavailable. The choice then is to keep looking for the information elsewhere, pay up at the paywall, or go through the interlibrary loan process. Our librarians are superb at getting access to individual journal articles that we need, but not everyone is so lucky to be affiliated with a good library at a good institution. There are many scientists who do not have access to these kind of services, and they either have to pay or hope to find the information elsewhere. And most members of the general public have absolutely no access to such services at all. Open access removes those barriers and allows research to move ahead more efficiently.
  • Open access makes research more relevant and reduces the temptation to “hoard” data. Open access allows other researchers and the general public to look at research outputs in all sorts of unpredictable ways. Full accessibility lets the full diversity of interests see and think about the work and, hopefully, take it to new and unpredictable places. In addition, while my little corner of the scientific endeavor (forest entomology, for the most part) is generally not beset by researchers afraid of being “scooped,” this tendency is present to some extent in all fields, and to a large extent in certain fields. Hoarding of data in order to hopefully glean the research glory results in competitive, rather than collaborative, use of research dollars. Replicated efforts in several competing labs may drive research to move faster, but it also sucks up declining research dollars in identical endeavors. Open access, and particularly the tendency toward open data that comes along with it, erodes these tendencies and promotes collaboration instead. The rise of biological preprint servers such as PeerJ PrerPrints and the biological portion of Arxiv also facilitate the erosion of meaningless competition.
  • Open access makes research institutions more relevant. In an era when universities are struggling with funding and, in some cases, public perception, the ability to freely disseminate the useful products of research to the public provides incentive for taxpayers to pressure governments for better funding of postsecondary education. If research results are behind paywalls, they remain mainly unknown to the public and, thus, irrelevant. If the results are irrelevant, so are the institutions in which they were produced.
  • Open access allows the public to see firsthand the evidence-based results that should be driving public policy. Ideally, all governments should consult honestly with scientists about medical, environmental, social, and other issues as they create policy. Realistically, most governments do this only as much as is optimal for their own political agenda. By removing all restrictions to access to research outputs – combined with a growing tendency for scientists to explain their research results to the public – governments will also have to be more transparent in their consultations with researchers. Perhaps we can move to a time when research drives policy rather than seeing policy attempt drive research.

It is, indeed, fantastic to see the US take this big step. And, as noted above, the US is not the first country to do this. It’s now time for the Canadian public to ask our government to start to take this issue more seriously as well, too.



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