Illusion of openly accessible research data

For UEF’s researchers, teachers and students, access to massive electronic publication archives is something that can be taken for granted, and the growing popularity of open access publishing adds to the amount of research data available. However, information is not free just because it is available electronically.  A lion’s share of the UEF Library’s budget for acquiring new information resources is spent on electronic publications.

As members of the academic community, it’s easy for us to get fooled by an illusion of freely available research data, as it is always just a few clicks away through our library.  Unfortunately, however, this kind of access to information is limited to the university network and the walls of our library. Of course, it is possible for people outside the university to gain similar access to research data by purchasing individual articles or e-books directly from publishers and to view these on their own computers. However, not many who need information can afford this, and the materials available freely online aren’t often enough for those looking for in-depth research data.

Despite the increasing popularity of open access publishing, the exponential growth of electronic resources has increased the proportional inequality between people needing information. At the global scale, this inequality is even more tangible. In developing countries, researchers seldom have access to publication archives like the ones we’re used to in Western countries. I have noticed that visiting researchers from Africa in particular have been excited about the opportunity to use our electronic collections.  Membership in an academic community has become a major divisive factor between people needing access to information.

When looked at by title, the number of electronic publications and e-books acquired by UEF is large. However, due to the way these publication packages are composed, they also contain plenty of material that is irrelevant to our research focus.  Moreover, they also lack some sets of publications that are crucial for us. There is a clear need to step up investments in the acquisition of electronic publications in the field of human sciences, and we can’t ignore the need for traditional printed journals, either. For human sciences, publication archives constitute an infrastructure similar to those of hard sciences. The range of publication forums in human sciences is considerably broader than in hard sciences, and this makes it difficult to include all relevant channels in the publication packages purchased.

Open science and open access publishing will not reduce the need to purchase access to electronic publication archives in the near future. This is a vicious cycle: we need to pay to maintain access to scientific publications – the alternative would be to be stuck behind a pay wall. There’s no such thing as a free lunch – and that’s a fact we need to keep in mind.

Harri Siiskonen

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