Open Access News

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Monday, May 28, 2007

Canada is missing an opportunity for OA to publicly-funded research (and why)

Michael Geist, Science and Tech Strategy a Missed Opportunity, Toronto Star, May 28, 2007.  Excerpt:

Earlier this month, Canada's top government leaders, including Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Industry Minister Maxime Bernier, and Finance Minister Jim Flahery unveiled the government's new science and technology strategy....

While much of the plan still deserves support - Canada leads the G-7 countries in public research - it ultimately represents a missed opportunity. Maximizing the value of Canada's investment in research requires...[that] publicly-funded scientific data and research results flow into the hands of researchers, businesses, and individuals.

In fact, given a recent Australian study that found that a five percent increase in access and efficient use of research results could deliver A$628 million in economic and social benefits, a top government priority in this area should involve moving beyond stale "commercialization" rhetoric by actually facilitating the use - whether for commercial or non-commercial purposes - of government-sponsored research.

Achieving that goal requires action on two fronts. First, the government should identify the raw, scientific data currently under its control and set it free. Implementing expensive or onerous licensing conditions for this publicly-funded data runs counter to the goals of commercialization and to government accountability for taxpayer expenditures.

Ottawa has already taken some important steps in this direction. Last month, it announced that Natural Resources Canada was making its electronic topographic mapping data available to all users free of charge over the Internet. The topographic data, which can be accessed at the aptly-named GeoGratis, provides information on the location of landscape features - such as lakes, rivers and elevations as well as roads, railways and administrative boundaries....

Second, Ottawa must pressure the three federal research granting institutions to build open access requirements into their research mandates. With over a billion dollars invested each year by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), an exceptionally important opportunity to enhance the benefits of publicly-funded research is being lost due to Canadian inaction on the open access issue.

In fact, according to internal correspondence and documents recently obtained under the Access to Information Act, it is becoming increasingly apparent that a Canadian open access strategy will only [come] to fruition with leadership from the federal government.

While CIHR is expected to conclude an open access plan this year and the SSHRC recently launched a pilot project for funding of electronic journals, internal documents reveal that both agencies continue to face stiff opposition from the publishing community. For example, as CIHR was consulting last year on its open access plans, former Industry Minister John Manley facilitated a meeting between the CIHR President and senior executives from Reed Elsevier, one of the world's largest publishers, to allow them to express their concerns with the health research open access initiative.

Meanwhile, SSHRC documents suggest that there is support for open access among the Council staff members, yet an open access plan was partly short-circuited by external opposition from publishers such as the University of Toronto Press, Canada's largest and oldest scholarly press, which last year received over a quarter million dollars in government handouts as part of the Book Publishing Industry Development Program.

Most discouragingly, NSERC, the leading science funding agency in Canada, has not taken any position on open access. Indeed, internal NSERC documents reveal that Council personnel repeatedly admit that open access is not a priority....

Canadians and Canadian researchers deserve better. The path toward making Canada a world leader through science and technology should include a strong commitment to facilitating the use of, and access to, publicly funded research and government-sponsored scientific data.


  1. The pattern is dismayingly similar from country to country:  publishers who oppose OA, and who oppose the public interest in maximizing the utility of publicly-funded research, have inside access to policy-makers, while supporters of OA and the public interest must plead their case from the outside.  Often the doors of power are opened to publisher lobbyists by other policy-makers who know nothing about scholarly communication issues but are determined to help business lobbies regardless of the consequences for research, agency goals, or taxpayer return on investment.
  2. Kudos to Geist for using the Canadian Access to Information Act to unearth some of the back story here.  Recall December 2005 when David Prosser of SPARC Europe used the UK Freedom of Information Act to discover that while Lord David Sainsbury (the UK Under-Secretary of State for Science at the time) was considering a Parliamentary recommendation for OA, he met with OA opponents roughly twice as often as with OA proponents, and met with the Reed Elsevier CEO three times more often than with any other stakeholder.  Also recall February 2007 when a press release from the STM inadvertently revealed that the publisher group had seen an advance copy of the EC's Communication on OA.  (OA activists and the public had to wait for its official release.)  The lesson:  don't assume that your public servants are serving the public.  Use freedom of information tools in your country to monitor them.
  3. I'm surprised by the University of Toronto action.  UT is the home of Project Open Source | Open Access (POSOA), one of the strongest and most effective OA programs at any university.   It was also one of the first members of the Open Content Alliance.  This appears to be a case in which one arm of a large institution doesn't know what another arm is doing. 

Update.  This Geist column also appears in P2PNet, his web site, and his blog.