Oxfam, the ODI and the open access debate

Anyone following either of the development world’s Twitter stalwarts, Duncan Green at Oxfam and Owen Barder at the Centre for Global Development (CGDev), (these guys are so prolific (and entertaining) on Twitter, you wonder how they have time to do anything else!) may have been confused by the torrent of acronyms coming out of yesterday’s burst of activity regarding open access to journals.


My short summary of the situation is this (gents, correct me if any of this is wrong):

An NGO called the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) publish a couple of peer-reviewed journals, the kind of thing that is important for academics to get their results taken seriously. In brief, once a piece of research is in a peer-reviewed journal, it can effectively be treated as ‘respectable’ by the rest of the academic community: other researchers are ‘allowed’ to take it as the starting point for their own research. (Obviously they can disagree that the conclusions of the research are valid, but there’s less scope for arguing that the research itself is meaningless.) The two journals published by the ODI are called Development Policy Review (DPR) and Disasters.

If you want to read the articles in either of these ODI journals, or any other journal not explicitly published as ‘open access‘, you need to be either (a) a member of an academic instition which has paid the publisher for access rights, (b) from one of a particular set of developing countries which have a special waver of the access fee, or pay for the article yourself. (In my experience, they are around $50 a pop.)

Access to the latest research by as many people as possible (and not just other full-time paid brainboxes) is generally considered a “good thing”, and it’s over the ODI’s open access policy that Green and Barder have been getting so excited on Twitter. The ODI’s line on open access is that they are pro the idea, but that the journals are actually published by a third party so they don’t actually have the right to make the articles available on their website.

And the debate is not purely one-sided. While open access sounds like a great idea there are costs involved in published, as with any other curated service. Both the publisher, Wiley, and the ODI themselves have costs to cover involved in producing research which is of high-quality and which, more importantly, double-checked by the eyes of at least two experts in the field. This principle of peer review is at the very heart of the scientific process (which can be summarised thus: clever person does experiment, other clever people check what they’ve done makes sense, future generations of clever people can build on this work without having to verify all the results themselves.)

So watch out for Green’s and Barder’s joint blog rant about open access, and the debate around the funding of and access to science which will follow.


Author: Rob Levy

Economist at NEF. Former teaching Fellow in Economics at UCL and Bristol University. Recently submitted my PhD. We'll see what happens...

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