Socialised is bad?

The logic of open access to research is simple: if taxpayers pay for research, taxpayers should be able to see it without also paying (very expensive) subscriptions to academic journals. Similarly, non-profit organisations like the Welcome Foundation want the research they fund to be used by as many people as possible.

There exists a strong anti-open access lobby, funded by publishers in the lucrative business of publishing academic journals. One of the arguments put forward by the anti-open access lobby is that this represents a socialisation of science. This is assumed (especially in the US) to be a bad thing.

The journal publishers are arguing for a rather curious type of private sector involvement. They want governments to fund the creation of the research, but for the finished product to be then circulated only in ways that allows them to make a profit.

This idea that capitalism is always good, and therefore the government should subsidise the private sector, even when it could supply a better or cheaper service itself, is not restricted to the publishing of research. It can be seen in the British governments blind preference for PFI (privately funded) infrastructure, it can be seen in legislation that stops certain US cities from providing free wireless broadband internet access, it can be seen in some of the complaints British for-profit broadcasters make about the BBC.

The obvious problem with the traditional publishers’ position is that they want public funding to continue. They just want to make sure that they can make a huge profit from circulating it.

A deeper irony is that really important scientific and technological research seems to be an intrinsically non-profit activity. This is obviously true of pure science which is often carried out decades before it becomes possible to put its results to any practical use. It is also often true of major technological advances. The internet is the result of government funded research, so are many improvements in drugs and medicine (many new, innovative, pharmaceutical companies have been founded by scientists commercialising research that they originally did at a university with government or charitable funding).

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