The UK's minister for universities and science has taken a special interest in open access to journal articles. He chooses to talk about access to academic publications as enacting a particular principle of transparency. I cannot disagree with the principle. In fact I used the same line about sunshine as the best disinfectant when writing about the need for great access to scientific data. Although I attributed the phrase to the early 20th Century US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, not David Cameron.
But there are two missing links in Willetts's argument.
First, if sunlight is a disinfectant, then transparent government is meant to keep something clean. But the motivation for open access here is to enable more business access to research output. It is different to sharing surgeons' success rates to allow for greater scrutiny of public services or the Treasury's spending data so that anyone can get a handle on public spending. This is about creating economic opportunity not public accountability.
There is at least an uncomfortable fit between open access and the main thrust of the government's transparency programme. (Admittedly, David Cameron's announcement of the second part of his programme was more explicitly aimed at the economic opportunities from open data. But he used the line about disinfectant to praise the philosophy behind Wikileaks.)
Second, a taxpayers' "right to roam" in academic journals is not the same as a right-to-understand, to re-use, to make-something-of. Just because in four years' time I will be able mull over 75% of the UK's research output, it doesn't mean I will understand any more of it. Nor does it mean that small companies will either, let alone turn it into a product or service. Access to the written output of research is only part of true transparency.