The University of California has done the right thing in joining the nationwide open access movement by officially coming out April 26 in support of California state assembly bill AB 609.
AB 609, which was introduced to the state assembly in February, aims to make results of government-funded research freely available to the public online. The bill follows a February mandate by the Obama administration requiring similar accessibility for federally funded research papers.
Open access to research is an important part of making education increasingly democratized and ensuring equal access to knowledge — regardless of socioeconomic status.
This cause is particularly relevant to the university. The university is renowned for its scientific and humanities research worldwide and, as a public institution, making this knowledge as widely available as possible is integral to fulfilling its mission. Considering that UC Berkeley will spend an estimated $30 million on access to 7,500 academic journals this year alone, open access could make knowledge sharing between institutions far more affordable.
Though supporting AB 609 is a step in the right direction, the bill also has its flaws.
For one thing, though the bill has not yet passed, its current language seems to indicate that the university is not considered a state agency held to the same standards of open sharing.
The university should not be exempt from making its research public if it intends to benefit from other state institutions’ public research.
AB 609 was recently amended to allow for a 12-month embargo period, during which research will be published in a peer-review journal before it is shared, but this is too long to be kept behind paywalls.
Support of the bill is also not all the university can and should do to make itself a strong advocate for open access.
The university should also support programs like the Open Access Initiative, which was co-founded by two campus undergraduates and suggests awarding less profit to publishers, who have less of a role in the research process.
Critics worry that open access to research could come at the cost of quality. That must not be the case for open access to be meaningful. There is a reason research must be peer-reviewed and vetted thoroughly before it is published, a process that must continue regardless of whether research papers are available for free.
As the open access movement gains momentum, it raises a few questions regarding different types of academic research. For instance, how should we provide the same type of access to humanities research, which is often published in a different format than science journals?
We need to be certain that this difference in format does not result in hard science becoming more available while humanities research remains under wraps, which could in turn lead to a greater divide between the disciplines.
The movement for open access to research parallels the one we are currently seeing in online education. Universities like MIT, Harvard and even UC Berkeley are joining programs that allow for affordable ways to access lectures and classes online — why shouldn’t research journals be made available in the same way?