The economic impact of access to research – the Australians count the cost and benefits

The Department of Education in Australia has recently released a very important report on Research Communication Costs in Australia, in which John Houghton, Colin Steele and Peter Sheehan provide a cost and benefit analysis of existing and emerging alternatives for scholarly communications out of Australian institutions. An article in the Australian, blogged by Peter Suber (who originally drew my attention to this report), provides an incisive summary of the findings, for those who want a rapid overview.

The results of this survey are startling, both for the high (hidden) costs that it reveals universities are paying in the current system and the high level of financial benefits that the report calculates could accrue from more open and effective dissemination of research results.

This is a particularly valuable contribution, because, as the authors note in their opening comments, ‘despite billions of dollars being spent by governments on R&D each year, relatively little policy attention has yet been paid to the dissemination of the results of that research through scientific and scholarly publishing.’

We could learn from this in South Africa. All too often, when problems with the commercial, ‘subscriber pays’ model of journal publication are raised and Open Access is mentioned, the response is an anxious query about where funding would come from to pay for a more open publishing system. What this reveals is a presumption that research dissemination is not the business of universities, but is outsourced to commercial providers. What it also reveals is that the academic community does not realise that it is already paying for scholarly publication, albeit in ways that universities do not conventionally track.

The authors of the Australian report have calculated the cost of the various contributions that are made by higher education institutions to the publication of journal articles. Computing the time involved in the various contributions of authoring, peer review, and editorial activities undertaken by university staff in their quest to get published, they come up with hidden costs of AUD19,000.00 ($14,000.00) per journal article. A scholarly monograph they estimate at AUD155,100.00 ($115,000.00) The authors then go on to quantify the benefits of improved R&D access in Australia, developing formulas for measuring the financial impact of increased dissemination and concluding that there could be very substantial financial returns from a switch to open access scholarly publication. What they conclude is that, In Australia, with public sector R&D at AUD5,912 million and a 25% rate of social return to R&D, a 5% increase in access and efficiency would be worth AUD 150 million a year. It would be very interesting to run these calculations in South Africa, particularly for returns on the R2.5 billion that is spent on university research, given that we really do need the impact that our research can offer,

According to this study, there are also a number of other measurable benefits relating to the increased impact provided by Open Access.

Research costs, they argue, could be impacted by:

  • Speed of access …speeding up the research and discovery process, …and, potentially, reducing the time/cost involved for a given outcome, and increasing the rate of accumulation of the stock of knowledge;
  • Improved access leading to reduced duplicative research… and improving efficiency;
  • Faster access, leading to better informed research, reducing the pursuit of blind alleys, saving R&D expenditure and improving the efficiency of R&D ;
  • Wider access providing enhanced opportunities for multi-disciplinary research, inter-institutional and inter-sectoral collaborations;
  • Wider access enabling researchers to study their context more broadly, potentially leading to increased opportunities for and rates of application/commercialization;
  • Improved access leading to improved education outcomes, enabling a given education spend to produce a higher level of education attainment …..
  • Potential benefits for industry and government could be:
  • The potential for wider access to both accelerate and widen opportunities for adoption and commercialization, thereby increasing returns on public investment in R&D and private investment in commercialization…;
  • The potential for much wider access … for GPs/nurses, teachers/students, small firms in consulting, engineering, architecture, design, electronics, software, biotechnology… who currently have limited or no access, with a possible impact on quality of services and, possibly, productivity in those sector of the economy.
  • The possibility for the emergence of new industries based on the open access content … In turn these might enhance research evaluation and lead to better focused R&D expenditures.

The conclusion of the report is that ‘a move towards more open access may represent a substantial cost-benefit advantage’ . As Peter Suber says in a comment on his blog: ‘Taxpayers need to realize how much the return on their investment in research could be amplified by a transition to OA and how how much they are paying for every delay in that transition.’ It is clear that South Africa would benefit from playing catch-up by getting moving on Open Access policies.

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