Increasing access to scholarly research

Last week the White House issued a memorandum directing federal agencies that fund more than $100 million in research to create plans for making the studies they fund freely available to the public. The positive responses from both academic publishers and access advocates lead me to believe that the solutions will primarily be some form of author-funded publication of this research, with the fees paid by the funding agencies.

Access to taxpayer funded research has been a sore point with many researchers for years, but the issue gained new visibility following the suicide death of Internet activist Aaron Swartz. Swartz’ case brought into stark relief the conflict between the U.S. government’s responsibility to make taxpayer-funded research available to its citizens, and its need to protect the lucrative industry that exists to publish much of this same research.

Whatever plans are put forward by the various agencies, I would surprised if they acknowledge two realities of publishing today. The first is the growing importance of direct self-publication (i.e. without a publication house involved) in society at large. Academics may be understandably slow to adopt this model for publication of research, but it is likely that a large number of open access journals will arise without the involvement of established academic publishers. Any one that attracts a sufficient number of distinguished scholars could prove successful.

The second factor is the impending obsolescence of print publications, whether paper or electronic. In the humanities, digital technology is quickly becoming the most popular way to publish research. As humanists become more familiar with technology (and students read less), interactivity will follow quickly and the linear narrative will likely fade. Science research has been ignoring the man behind the curtain for decades now. The litmus test for published scientific results is supposed to be whether they can be reliably repeated, but very few conventional journal publications include (or can include) more than a vague description of the data, and even less information concerning the apparatus and software codes that were used to produce the results.

E-books are already suffering declining sales, as interactive tablets and media rise quickly. The future of academic publishing is likely to be very different from its present.