A lack of leadership on information policy issues has left Canadian research and innovation at risk of falling even further behind those of our peer countries. Our public data is less available than it should be, our publicly-funded research remains inaccessible to many, and our educational institutions face grim choices in determining which resources they can afford to provide for students and faculty. If the federal government truly wants Canada to be known more for its “resourcefulness” than its “resources,” it needs to provide national leadership in setting information policies to improve access to research and data.
The concern here doesn’t arise from some abstract belief in the value of “free information” but is rooted in the well-established fact that innovation requires information. Every new invention, idea or discovery builds on pre-existing information. As Sir Isaac Newton once wrote, we are only great because we are able to stand on the shoulders of giants. When access to information is hampered, so too is our view from the giant’s shoulders and consequently our ability to innovate and generate new knowledge.
There are a number of specific policies the government could adopt or advocate for that would improve Canadians’ resourcefulness. These include: helping coordinate a national library strategy to reduce the ever-increasing costs of accessing scientific information; requiring research that is supported by federal funding to be immediately publicly available; and mandating federal agencies to provide open access to non-confidential data.
A national research library policy. The Canadian Association of Research Libraries recently published a statement describing the “crisis” in the current state of access to research information. The problem stems from the rising cost of journal subscriptions. Each year these costs increase at a rate greater than inflation. Most publisher fees are paid in U.S. dollars, so recently these price increases have been compounded by a devalued Canadian dollar. In recent years, these costs have risen so high that a number of Canadian universities have been forced to cut back on the information access they provide to faculty and students.
The challenge in coping with these rising costs stems from a market failure. The market for academic research is controlled by a small number of publishers and any single library or university has little bargaining power. In response to this, I suggest that the federal Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development Navdeep Bains lead an initiative to create an alliance between all Canadian government, public and academic libraries. This alliance would be similar to the pan-Canadian Pharmaceutical Alliance in which the provinces combine their purchasing power to negotiate for lower drug prices from pharmaceutical companies. By uniting libraries into a similar alliance, the minister would improve our bargaining position and reduce academic-publisher profiteering.
Open access to Canadian research. The federal government funds a great deal of research. Much of that research results in articles published in scientific journals. Currently, research funding from the three large federal funding agencies comes with the stipulation that articles be available to the public within 12 months of publication. These temporary embargos empower the profiteering publishers and should be disallowed.
Canada should take the lead in removing the ability of publishers to fence publicly-funded research behind a paywall by making immediate open access a condition for any publications resulting from federal funding. Furthermore, the agencies should set a reasonable cap on any “open-access fees” paid to publishers. Publishers charge these fees ostensibly to make up for the profits they lose in providing open access. However, in practice they simply add another layer of cost for taxpayers. We currently fund the research, pay the open-access fees and are still on the hook for ever-increasing journal subscription costs.
Make public data public. Improving access to public data is perhaps the simplest thing the current government could do to improve Canadian information policy. Although the federal government has made great strides in the area, we still lag behind similarly developed countries in offering free and open access to the data that our government generates. For instance, the Canadian Intellectual Property Office – an entity whose entire existence is premised on our belief that access to ideas is a public good – charges hundreds or thousands of dollars for their bulk data products. In other countries, similar data is freely available. The federal government should adopt a policy of providing free and open access to all non-confidential data sets.
The suggestions here would represent promising steps towards a coherent information policy framework to ensure that Canadians have affordable and world-leading access to ideas, so that our resourcefulness is able to shine on the global stage.
Ryan Whalen is a JD and PhD candidate at Northwestern University in Chicago, and will join the faculty of Dalhousie University’s School of Information Management in June.