Concept for Stockholm library by Olivier Charles

Here’s a media report about a longitudinal study by researchers from the University of Melbourne on the connection between urban design and exercise.

They say living close to shops is associated with walking an extra 6 minutes each week. Living near a beach or park correlates with walking an extra 21 minutes per week.

The paper is titled The influence of urban design on neighbourhood walking following residential relocation. It’s published in the January 2013 issue of publishing house Elsevier’s journal, Social science and medicine.

According to lead researcher Professor Billie Gilles-Corti, the findings mean that:

where there is an environment that supports walking with access to multiple facilities, residents walked much more.

It’s not quite as impressive when expressed in the customary way: living near a beach or park is associated with around three minutes extra walking per day on average.

Still, my interest was sufficiently piqued by the University’s media release to want to read the full paper.

It sounded like something that’d make an interesting article. But when I went to read the electronic version of the paper I was stopped by the now familiar demand for $35.95 to read it (or any other article in this august journal).

You can buy a new-release hardback for less than that!

I’m getting increasingly annoyed with universities who issue media releases about new academic papers that’re only available publicly at a (high) price.

In fact in many cases the research isn’t even available at all because the journal hasn’t published it yet.

While the research itself might be sound, what university Comms teams churn out is often much the same as the cherry-picked, self-serving versions of events put out by politicians, government agencies and businesses.

Anything dramatic and eye-catching to a general audience is highlighted and any limitations in the scope and methodology of the research are ignored.

I’d probably let it pass if it were easy for the media – both mainstream and social – to evaluate, analyse and question the PR version, but there’s the rub.

Much more often than not, the published research is behind a paywall or not in the public domain at all. The bland assertions of the PR machine are hard to challenge.

In a world of intense competition for students perhaps this “marketing at all costs” orientation is inevitable.

But these are universities that’re largely funded by the taxpayer. One of their key purpose is to promote truth and the dissemination of knowledge.

They should be providing the full story rather than a sanitised, self-regarding version. They should be providing well-researched information to underpin public discussion and debate.

I appreciate it’s a difficult choice for academics. They want to publish in the best journals to advance their careers. Most times those journals are controlled by the big publishing houses.

There are alternatives. In my experience, academics at some of the top-shelf US universities routinely make their journal articles available as “working papers” for direct download, sometimes on private web sites.

These are usually earlier versions that differ very slightly in substance (if at all) from the published version. Or there’re more elaborate versions deliberately constructed by the authors for a wider audience.

It’s remarkable that I can access most papers by Harvard’s Edward Glaeser with ease, while those of lesser lights remain almost hidden from view.

It’s a pity many academics settle for limiting their readership to other academics.

A year or so ago there was some momentum, led by Harvard University – the second richest NFP in the world – to break the publishing house monopoly on academic publishing.

Harvard says its annual bill for journal subscriptions is too expensive. According to this report, some journals cost as much as $40,000 p.a. and subscription prices from two publishers increased by 145% in just six years.

The charge levelled against publishing houses is they make super-profits. $35.95 for a single article does seem extraordinary given the highest cost components of the production chain – writing and editing – aren’t paid by the publisher. And this is for a download!

Harvard’s faculty advisory council advised staff to:

make sure all your own papers are accessible … in accordance with the faculty-initiated open access policies [and] consider submitting articles to open-access journals or to ones that have a reasonable, sustainable subscription costs; move prestige to open access.

I don’t know what’s happened to this initiative, but I hope it’s progressing. There’s support from other quarters and I’ve certainly seen some open-access, online journals emerge in areas like transport and geography, but I doubt they’re the prestigious ones yet.

The world has changed. There’re a lot more non-university voices who’re interested in evaluating and publicising academic research. It’s time academic research came out from behind the paywall.

If Australian universities and academics are going to persist with issuing media releases, they should work harder at making the papers themselves available to a wider audience beyond academia.

To its credit, UNSW is making some effort. There’s room here though for academics themselves to be a little more adventurous in providing access to their work.

So far as the findings of Professor Giles-Corti et al are concerned, I’ll have to wait until someone kindly e-mails me a copy of the paper before I can say anything definitive (done! Thank you, kind reader).

However, I wouldn’t be surprised if the kind of people who value proximity to a beach enough to pay a premium for it are also the kind of people who’re likely to use it.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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