Saturday, September 09, 2006

University Research and the Public's Right to Know

By Richard Vedder

A mini civil war is brewing in the university research community over the issue of whether federally funded research results should automatically be posted on the internet in a timely fashion. One side says "yes," that we should take advantage of new technology to speed the dissemination of new information; besides, the government is funding the results so the people have the right to know what it is funding (akin to open record and meetings laws in other contexts). Some scientific organizations and librarians generally are on this side of the debate.

Others argue that the dissemination of research results should be at the discretion of the researchers, and that the proposed new rules would grieviously and inappropriately reduce the freedom of action of those researchers. Moreover, it is argued that this move would kill academic journals, which ultimately publish most research of importance. Why subscribe to journals if the results are available elsewhere for nothing? The American Chemical Society, for example, is on this side of the debate, as it is a major publisher of journals.

I usually come down strongly on the side of individual freedom, and hate governmental regulations that impede efficient results. At the same time, however, if one decides to take federal funding, then I think she or he needs to accept the fact that the taxpayers are subsidizing the research, and therefore the taxpayer (broadly defined) has a right to see what he or she is getting for the money. Therefore, I come down on the side of openness.

As an institute concerned with costs and efficiency, CCAP sees potentially large savings to universities from moving ultimately to an electronic research data and publications base. That move is already well under way; I use JSTOR all the time to retrieve old (generally five years or older) journals. The proposed rule would allow JSTOR and others to disseminate more recent issues of journals, or working papers published outside the journal format.

Also, this proposal should help the production of new research as well, by lowering the costs of retrieving recent research developments. I say that as one who loves books and journals, and derives some pleasure at merely looking at the journals sitting on my shelves. However, it is time to use technology to make universities more efficient and the public has the right to know. (I feel entirely differently about privately funded research --it is a private property right that the owner can disseminate as she or he wishes). There are other issues, such as whether universities should be in the business of seeking patents and hiding research results from the public in order to extract financial gain, but I defer discussion of these topics to a later day.

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