Who owns academic research? How should business schools approach open access publishing?

By | January 3, 2013

Pol O Morain

Guest blog by Pol O Morain, MBA alumnus and advisory board member of Bradford University School of Management, international marketing commentator and partner at EnterpriseLab.

Courtesy of gavilan.edu

We’ve all been there. A business project requires expert research-oriented knowledge or you are researching for your MBA  in international business management.  A Google search turns up some relevant academic research content.

But when you click to view you are suddenly confronted by a pay wall. What is even more frustrating is that often the research paper behind the pay wall is the output of publicly funded research.

1.    Should publicly funded research be freely available?

This, of course, begs the question “Who owns the research?” Surely publicly funded research should be freely available. Where there is a charge should the income not go back into the research pot to fund further knowledge creation?

Courtesy of angelabooth.com

Courtesy of angelabooth.com

The business of research knowledge has become big business globally. We have a system whereby publicly funded research results and knowledge become the intellectual property of major publishing houses. These publishers then charge universities, businesses and individuals for access. It’s a nice business model – if you are a publisher.  But not for anyone else.

Illustration Daniel Pudles

Illustration Daniel Pudles

2.            Journals enjoy profit margins up to 70%

A recent study by a British university suggests journals enjoy profit margins of up to 70%. The British Government announced earlier this year that they will act on the recommendations in a commissioned report on open access for research publishing by Dame Janet Finch. However they have indicated an intention to pay the publishers for the content which would, in turn, be publicly available.

So the publishers will continue to be rewarded and paid for content that either results directly from publicly funded research – or that which is cross subsidised by universities from teaching budgets.

3.            The government spends £5bn on research

In an article earlier this year in the Guardian newspaper, David Willetts the Universities and Science Minister indicated the UK spends £5bn per year on research.

He said:  “We fund this research because it furthers human knowledge and drives intellectual, social and economic progress. In line with our commitment to open information, I will be announcing at the Publishers Association annual meeting that we will make publicly funded research accessible free of charge to readers. Giving people the right to roam freely over publicly funded research will usher in a new era of academic discovery and collaboration, and will put the UK at the forefront of open research.”

£5bn is a substantial sum of money by anyone’s standard. The value of knowledge and intellectual capital created by research must reasonably be assumed to represent a multiple value increase over research spend. The economic and business value of research, were it to be made freely available, is enormous.



4.            Open access must become the norm

Open access to such knowledge should be a requisite of research funding and open access publishing should become the norm rather than the exception.

Over recent months we have seen major public campaigns around business taxation and including the tax affairs of Starbucks. Yet there is little public debate on the practices surrounding research knowledge nor on the tax affairs of some of the leading publishers.

Courtesy of ttp design

Courtesy of ttp design

Indeed, some of these publishers, including Informa, have moved their businesses offshore for the purpose of gaining tax efficiencies. Tax avoidance.

So the research knowledge becomes a double-edged farce where even the argument that the corporate tax paid by publishers effectively contributes to the public purse, which then funds the research, no longer exists.

The tax affairs of Starbucks and their offer of a £10m annual tax payment in the UK is paltry in comparison to the huge sums involved in academic publishing.

Is open access the answer to this issue?

2 thoughts on “Who owns academic research? How should business schools approach open access publishing?

  1. Chris Thompson

    Arguably journals do add a measure of value in their selection (and/or promotion) of particularly noteworthy research, so I’d have no objection giving them a time-limited ‘exclusive’ but we’re talking a few months rather than anything more.

    It’s outrageous they’ve been allowed to continue with their existing model for so long!

  2. Dr Williams

    The perversion of academic and scientific knowledge by publishing houses extends too to other countries, including the US. In 2011 we witnessed the well publicised case of a Gregory Maxwell uploading 18,592 scientific articles to BitTorrent. The actions of Maxwell followed the then arrest of activist Aaron Swartz for downloading academic papers over MIT’s networks.

    In the case of the Maxwell uploads, the papers were all pre 1923 and so out of copyright. Yet still kept behind pay walls by publishers including JSTOR.

    As we all know, the prosecution of Aaron Swartz at the behest of MIT has had tragic consequences – suicide, seemingly as a preferred option to the possibility of 35 years behind bars. So the topic of this blog is both topical and timely.

    Academic knowledge must become freely available and it must be allowed to contribute to the collective knowledge commons.

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