David Nichols

Universities have long been accused of operating in an ivory tower, separate from the rest of society. One area where this characterisation is fairly accurate is in the accessibility of university research works. The current system of scholarly communication places most articles from most authors behind a ‘paywall’ at a publisher’s website. How well does this arrangement support the role of universities in society?

A common description of the role of a university is that it should act as a critic and conscience of society. In New Zealand, this role is explicitly laid out in legislation, in Section 162 (4) (a) (v) of the Education Act 1989 (l).

Jones, Galvin and Woodhouse (2000) addressed this role and commented:

“Research and publication go hand in hand, so much so that both are crucially dependent upon the existence of academic freedom. Put another way, academic freedom to conduct research but not publish the results of that research is a sham.”

They did not address where the research is published or how easy it might be for members of society to access research findings. Although there are no calculations of exactly where New Zealand research is published, it is likely that most research authored by researchers at New Zealand universities is behind publishers’ paywalls.

Two of the main arguments for allowing society at large access to the results of university research are:

  • that research has typically been supported, in some way,  through public funding;
  • that legislation and policy that impacts on society is often based on research findings.

Universities New Zealand break down the income to universities as follows:

“The New Zealand universities receive approximately 40% of their annual income from government grants – $1.3 billion of the combined total income of $3.1 billion recorded in 2010.  The remaining income is split evenly between student fees and other sources – principally research contracts and trading income.”

Student fees are significantly facilitated through the student loans system and research contracts are often derived from public funds; public assistance, then, in some form, is inherent in most university research. Do members of the public have a right to access these research results? Do they have a right to freely access these results? Where research is used to inform government policy then there is a straightforward case that those who will be affected by new laws should have easy access to the underlying evidence.

Funding agencies around the world are increasingly recognising that they should aim for the widest distribution of the articles describing research they have funded (or rather, that taxpayers have funded). This position has been summarised recently by Research Councils UK:

“As major bodies charged with investing public money in research, the Research Councils take responsibility in making the outputs from this research publicly available – not just to other researchers, but also to potential users in business, charitable and public sectors, and to the general public.”

Statements such as these represent  a shift in attitudes toward scholarly communication. The evolution of academic publishing allowed researchers to direct their major outputs to journals that were largely unknown and mostly inaccessible to the general public. Communication of research results to wider society, or outreach, has been regarded as an extra and distinct activity that not all academics engaged in. In addition, the value system within academia has focussed on publishing in these (to many, obscure) journals.

All these behaviours have reinforced a separation between university research and society; the stereotypical ivory tower characterisation of academics has been largely consistent with their publishing practices. Although these articles can be accessed via public libraries they require extra effort on the part of information searchers. The reality of our connected society is that information access is often practically a matter of whether a document is instantly available on the internet.

A counter-argument that questions the value of public open access to university research is whether the general public can usefully engage with primary research documents. Although there are clearly examples where this is true the growing education levels of society in general suggest the force of this argument will fade over time. From the perspective of an individual university then one segment of society who would clearly be able to benefit from access are their own alumni. The value of public access to research across society as a whole is shown in the variety of scenarios gathered at whoneedsaccess.org

In conclusion, it is unreasonable for universities to claim to act as a critic and conscience of society when the results of those explorations are largely placed behind financial and logistical barriers. Whilst there are a variety of ways for academics to engage with society, the single simplest approach is to allow society to easily access their work.


Jones, D.G., Galvin, K. and Woodhouse, D. (2000) Universities as Critic and Conscience of Society, Series on Quality No. 6, New Zealand Universities Academic Audit Unit.

David Nichols is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Computer Science, University of Waikato.

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