Beyond the public debt: making a wider case for openness

My latest Guardian column is "Why all pharmaceutical research should be made open access," and it makes the wider case for open access, beyond the obvious truth that publicly funded work should be available to the public:

One of the strongest arguments for public access in scholarly and scientific publication is the "public debt" argument: if the public pays you to do research, the research should belong to the public. That's a good argument, but it's not the whole story. For one thing, it's vulnerable to the "public-private partnership" counterargument, which goes, "Ah, yes, but why not ensure that the public gets a maximum dividend on its spending by charging lots of money for access to publicly funded research and returning the profit to the research sector?" I think this argument is rubbish, as do most economists who have studied the question.

The public good of freely accessible, unencumbered research generates more economic value for the public than the quick-hit sugar-rush you get from charging the public on the way in and again on the way out. This has held true in many sectors, though the canonical example is the massive public return from the US Geological Survey's freely usable maps, which have generated a fortune that makes the ransoms collected by the Ordnance Survey on its maps of the UK look like a pittance.

That's why Goldacre's work is important to this discussion. The reason pharma companies should be required to publish their results isn't that they've received a public subsidy for the research. Rather, it is because they are asking for a governmental certification saying that their products are fit for consumption, and they are asking for regulatory space to allow doctors to write prescriptions for those products. We need them to disclose their research – even if doing so undermines their profits – because without that research, we can't know if their products are fit for use.

Why all pharmaceutical research should be made open access