Thursday, April 22, 2010

The direct and indirect benefits of open access for the public

With the Federal Research Public Access Act under discussion in the U.S., it may be timely to review the direct and indirect benefits of open access for the public. Following is an excerpt from an article that Andrew Waller & I wrote for the Library Association of Alberta newsletter in 2004.

Benefits of Open Access

So, what benefits does Open Access bring? For the academic world, as noted, it
could help libraries better cope with subscription costs and provide more stability to budgeting, give researchers more control over their works, and also allow for wider distribution of those works, something most academics desire. What about the “general public”? There are both direct and indirect benefits for the general public.

Direct benefits occur when the public reads the primary research literature. At first glance, it might not seem intuitive that the public would be interested in reading this material. Perhaps this is because there is a tendency to view “the general public” as if it were some homogenous, average group of people. In reality, “the general public” is all of us. Here in Western Canada, “the public” includes a significant percentage of the population with university degrees; graduate degrees are not uncommon. Even academic researchers are members of “the public” outside of their areas of specialty.

The most popular notion of the direct benefits to the general public, and an important one, is the ability of patients and families to directly read the literature relating to medical conditions. The need for this access is perhaps most poignantly felt when someone is diagnosed with a rare, genetic condition, one that doctors know little about, and which might well affect many members of a family.

Another example of a direct benefit is the ability of students outside the research universities to read the primary research literature. Students who begin their studies at smaller colleges or university colleges, and high school students, could have the same access to the literature as students at research universities. This, in turn, would make it easier for educators and librarians at these institutions to help these students develop information literacy skills.

There are also people who are serious hobbyists who are quite capable of following the scholarly literature, and, in some cases, these people are assisting in the advancement of scientific knowledge. One example is astronomy; apparently there are so many serious amateur astronomers in the world, that whenever a new event in the heavens occurs, it is more likely to be reported by an amateur first, rather than a professional.

Indirect benefits to the public could come through the mediation of others. In an OA world, journalists and freelance writers would have ready access to the latest in the research literature. As one example, it could be easier for a journalist to investigate an environmental problem, as well as possible solutions. It could be easier for journalists to translate the latest medical discoveries, to help “the public” understand issues like SARS and AIDS, what causes common diseases (and how they might be prevented), what kinds of treatments might someday be available when we, or our loved ones, need it, and so on.

Finally, the increased exposure to results of the research of our universities can only enhance the value of the universities themselves in the eyes of the public and politicians. Scholars giving away the fruits of their labours can only result in greater support (definitely moral and hopefully financial) for future endeavours.

From: Morrison, Heather and Waller, Andrew Open access : basics and benefits., 2004. Available through E-LIS.