Closed and open access to scholarly knowledge
An afternoon with Sir Timothy Gowers
World-renowned British mathematician and open access campaigner Sir Timothy Gowers featured at an event co-sponsored by the State Library of Queensland on 29 June at the State Library’s Auditorium.
About 70 members and guests of the Society along with staff and volunteers from the State Library of Queensland enjoyed the event.
We were also honoured by the presence of the State Librarian, Ms Vicki McDonald, who hosted invitees including members of the Society and the Queensland Science Network to afternoon tea after the address.
Sir Timothy is professor of mathematics at the University of Cambridge and a Fellow of the Royal Society (UK). Sir Timothy has campaigned against publishing houses that commercialise access to academic journals and restrict the free exchange of information. He initiated a boycott known as The Cost of Knowledge in 2012.
Sir Timothy spoke on open access from the perspective of public interest libraries endeavouring to maintain open access. He deplored the costs that the large publishing houses, such as Elsevier and Taylor & Francis, impose upon public libraries for subscriptions to scientific journals, especially when subscriptions to a number of journals are bundled up on an all or nothing basis. He noted that the publishing houses receive their raw material free of charge from researchers, that peer reviewers then work on the material free of charge, and that the cost of publishing the resulting edited material online is virtually zero. He noted that most academics do not require a financial incentive in order to pursue their research: they do so for reasons of reputation, curiosity and passion for their craft. The commercial houses piggyback on this expertise free of charge, then levy a fee on the host institutions to report it back.
Independent scholars who are not a staff member of a research institution are finding that more and more journals are blocked to them as walk-in members of the public and of course hard copies are no longer available on the shelves.
Sir Timothy also spoke on the relevance of a small generalist learned society in an era when scholarship is turning commercial and competitive – and in which public scientific institutions lack funds and influence. He acknowledged the difficulty that any scientific organisation now has in print-publishing a journal, argued against handing over responsibility to one of the international publishing houses. He suggested that societies might seek philanthropic endowments to cover the costs of preparing scientific knowledge in this format for broader access.
He also said that the Internet opens up the possibility of “innovative methods of scholarly communication”. The Queensland Science Network that the Society has initiated would be an example. Sir Timothy mentioned the website Arxiv, https://arxiv.org/ , an e-print service in the fields of physics, mathematics, computer science, quantitative biology, quantitative finance and statistics. This automated electronic archive and distribution server for research articles bypasses the commercial publishing houses. It is moderated but is not peer-reviewed so papers published here are properly regarded as ‘preprints’.
In thanking Sir Timothy, President Geoff Edwards mentioned that the Royal Society of London spearheaded the rise of independent intellectual enquiry that we now loosely call the Enlightenment and established the standards of peer-reviewed publication that knowledge societies like our own follow to this day.
The Society thanks the State Librarian and executive Ms Anna Raunik for organising the event and Ms Jacinta Sutton for arranging audio recording including his speech and audience Q&A – see links to the SLQ website and SLQ’s YouTube channel: