Why Robin Osborne makes no sense

July 9, 2013

Robin Osborne, professor of ancient history at King’s College, Cambridge, had an article in the Guardian yesterday entitled “Why open access makes no sense“. It was described by Peter Coles as “a spectacularly insular and arrogant argument”, by Peter Webster as an “Amazingly wrong-headed piece” and  by Glyn Moody as “easily the most arrogant & dim-witted article I’ve ever read on OA”.

Here’s my response (posted as a comment on the original article):

At a time when the world as a whole is waking up to the open-access imperative, it breaks my heart to read this fusty, elitist, reactionary piece, in which Professor Osborne ends up arguing strongly for his own irrelevance. What a tragic lack of vision, and of ambition.

There is still a discussion to be had over what routes to take to universal open access, how quickly to move, and what other collateral changes need to be made (such as changing how research is evaluated for the purposes of job-searches and promotion). But Osborne’s entitled bleat is no part of that discussion. He has opted out.

The fundamental argument for providing open access to academic research is that research that is funded by the tax-payer should be available to the tax-payer.

That is not the fundamental argument for providing open access (although it’s certainly a compelling secondary one). The fundamental argument is that the job of a researcher is to create new knowledge and understanding; and that it’s insane to then take that new knowledge and understanding and lock it up where only a tiny proportion of the population can benefit from it. That’s true whether the research is funded publicly or by a private charity.

The problem is that the two situations are quite different. In the first case [academic research], I propose both the research questions and the dataset to which I apply them. In the second [commercial research] the company commissioning the work supplies the questions.

Osborne’s position here seem to be that because he is more privileged than a commercial researcher in one respect (being allowed to choose the subject of his research) he should also be more privileged in another (being allowed to choose to restrict his results to an elite). How can such an attitude be explained? I find it quite baffling. Why would allowing researchers to choose their own subjects mean that funders would be happy to allow the results to be hidden from the world?

Publishing research is a pedagogical exercise, a way of teaching others

Yes. Which is precisely why there is no justification for withholding it from those others.

At the end of the day the paper published in a Gold open access journal becomes less widely read. [...] UK scholars who are obliged to publish in Gold open access journals will end up publishing in journals that are less international and, for all that access to them is cost-free, are less accessed in fact. UK research published through Gold open access will end up being ignored.

As a simple matter of statistics, this is flatly incorrect. Open-access papers are read, and cited, significantly more than paywalled papers. The meta-analysis of Swan (2010) surveyed 31 previous studies of the open-access citation advantage, showing that 27 of them found advantages of between 45% are 600%. I did a rough-and-ready calculation on the final table of that report, averaging the citation advantages given for each of ten academic fields (using the midpoints of ranges when given), and found that on average open-access articles are cited 176% more often — that is, 2.76 times as often — as non-open.

There can be no such thing as free access to academic research. Academic research is not something to which free access is possible.

… because saying it twice makes it more true.

Like it or not, the primary beneficiary of research funding is the researcher, who has managed to deepen their understanding by working on a particular dataset.

Just supposing this strange assertion is true (which I don’t at all accept), I’m left wondering what Osborne thinks the actual purpose of his research is. On what basis does he think our taxes should pay him to investigate questions which (as he himself reminds us) he has chosen as being of interest to him? Does he honestly believe that the state owes him not just a living, but a living doing the work that he chooses on the subject that he chooses with no benefit accruing to anyone but him?

No, it won’t do. We fund research so that we can all be enriched by the new knowledge, not just an entited elite. Open access is not just an economic necessity, it’s a moral imperative.

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5 Responses to “Why Robin Osborne makes no sense”


  1. […] nevertheless we pretend it does not matter, isn’t it sick?)  Instead, conformity reigns.  Mike Taylor spends a post on this article, exposing it’s weakness  as concerns […]


  2. […] the most arrogant & dim-witted article I’ve ever read on OA”.  Meira í umfjöllun Mike Taylor og frekari viðbrögð frá lesendum Guardian þar sem styttri útgáfa pistils Osborne […]

  3. Mike from Ottawa Says:

    Surely Osborne’s piece is some bit of post-modern performance art..


  4. […] the way, we talked about the open-access citation advantage, the (mostly non-) problem of article processing charges, the complete non-problem of […]


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