Knock, knock…evidence wanted

By Catherine Glew 28 May 2014

Charities would be much more effective if they had better access to academic research and outcome data to help design and improve their services. Many are limited by a lack of time, skill and budget, but a willingness—and genuine desire—to collect and use evidence in this way continues to grow. The problem is access, as our head of measurement David Pritchard has previously described.

Behind closed doors

Even with the flourishing open data movement hammering on the door, publishers’ price-lists for journal subscription deny access to all but the largest voluntary sector organisations. Subscription to the American journal Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly costs around £500. Though some offer discounted rates for charities—the Voluntary Sector Review, for example—those with a range of interests may need to access more than one journal to gather useful information, and this is often prohibitively expensive.

Back in 2012 even Harvard University was up in arms about their annual journal bill, which totalled a whopping $3.5m.

Open and shut

A growing number of journals are open access—available online for free—or require payment only from submitting authors who are typically funded by their institution. There have been calls for research funded by public or charity money to be made open-access by default. But opening up closed sources takes time, and while activists push for change, charities impatient for access to information that could help them cite sound evidence for their programmes have nowhere to go.

The OPM/NCVO 2012 report reveals that 80% of organisations identify cost as a barrier to academic research, with some resorting to using student volunteers and staff working in academia to access journals through their university log-ins. It highlights how organisations use research for a range of purposes and the benefits it brings, allowing them to develop knowledge to support policy positions, evidence impact for funding bids, consider new ideas, keep in touch with current debates, and learn from others’ mistakes.

Time to act

NPC has pioneered opening up government data to charities with the Justice Data Lab. Like others, we’re keen to knock down doors at the publishing houses, giving the voluntary sector the sound evidence it needs to learn and improve. The discussion continues; but how should the voluntary sector act now to push for better access? Should sector umbrella bodies negotiate with the publishers to secure cheaper rates for charities? Have any organisations tackled the issue already? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.