Sharing the results of publicly funded research

The Access principle revisited: open access and the Knowledge Commons

May 2, 2012 in Uncategorized

In a recent article Stevan Harnad, one of the most outspoken supporters of open access, writes that peer access has priority over public access. After noting that  “for some fields of research — especially health-relevant research — public access is a strong reason for public funders to mandate providing public access”, he goes on to give a number of reasons that for other areas public access is less important.

His reasoning in this goes as follows: “most peer-reviewed research reports themselves are neither understandable nor of direct interest to the general public as reading matter” and “Hence, for most research, “public access to publicly funded research,” is not reason enough for providing OA, nor for mandating that OA be provided”.

I strongly object to this representation of the “facts”. There is no reason at all to think that science is too difficult for non scientists. There is all the more reason to believe that non scientists can and will contribute to science in unsuspected ways and on top of this are also in need of information. Thomas Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health, recently described two examples of citizen science that were reported at the Sage Bionetworks Commons Congress in San Francisco: Meredith, a 15-year-old high school student from San Diego, wrote this year’s breakthrough paper on modeling global epidemics. And an 11-year-old boy from upstate New York solved a problem in protein folding using a computer game called Foldit.  Another argument in favor of open access for everyone was given by Robbert Dijkgraaf, president of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, who said that science should be open because the more science is open, the more attraction it will have for future generations to become scientists. In addition we shouldn’t also forget that the public of non-scientists is a mixed group of people consisting of entrepreneurs, students, lawyers, politicians, health professionals and many others. For them access to information is not less vital than for scientists.

The heart of the matter is that science is not, nor should it be, the exclusive domain of scientists. Science (and for that matter all other human knowledge generating activities), is a Knowledge  Commons. The core of the open access debate stems from the following 3 principles: 1) access to knowledge is a human right, 2) the combined human knowledge can never be the property of any single person or organization, it is a human heritage, 3) knowledge in itself is worthless, it only becomes valuable when it can be freely shared and used. These 3 principles are closely linked to the definition of intellectual freedom as defined by the American Library Association:

Intellectual Freedom is the right of every individual to both seek and receive information from all points of view without restriction. It provides for free access to all expressions of ideas through which any and all sides of a question, cause or movement may be explored. Intellectual freedom encompasses the freedom to hold, receive and disseminate ideas.

There have been times and instances that science was the domain of (a) select group(s). However the invention of printing and the development of publishing businesses have, at least initially, done a great deal to make science accessible to the public.  Also, the time that universities were knowledge temples with exclusive rights on knowledge came definitely to an end, when in 1597 the Gresham College in London became the first Open University where access to lectures was free for everyone. This Gresham College later gave rise to the Royal Society. Thus, openness in science has started centuries ago, but has not yet led to open science.

What has gone wrong?  One of the main things that have gone wrong is, that openness has been severely compromised by the monopolization of knowledge by scientific publishers that has occurred during a great part of the 20th century. The erosion of knowledge as a commons, in the form of restricted access to information, has done great harm to science. But it seems almost certain that this is going to end real soon. Just as the invention and wide-spread use of the internet, specifically designed for sharing [information], has been instrumental in the de-monopolization of software (open source software), books (free ebooks), education (open courseware) and more, it will be instrumental in the liberation of science (open access publications and data). Scientists have been slow to adapt to the realities and opportunities of the internet, while the general public has been quick to accept and use its sharing principle. However, with a growing realization [of these opportunities] among scientists, the movement for open access and open science is gaining momentum by the day. The Cost of Knowledge, a list of scientists who have signed a petition to boycott Elsevier, one of the major global players in scientific publishing, already has more than 10,000 signatories. The time has clearly come for a change , and because the internet cannot be controlled by publishers, scientists and citizens now have an unique opportunity to communicate and share their knowledge freely through it, and through open access publishing, to finally start the new era of networked open science.

2 responses to “The Access principle revisited: open access and the Knowledge Commons”

  1. Excellent article, with compelling examples.
    I have challenged Stevan Harnad’s views on the GOAL list – he sticks by his assertion.
    We have to keep challenging this ivory-towerism

  2. Stevan Harnad says:

    OA Pragmatics vs. Ideology

    The (shared) goal of open access (OA) advocates is presumably OA, not abstractions.

    If papers are made OA, it means they are freely accessible to everyone online: both peers and public. If not, not.

    So the only problem is getting the papers to be made OA. And that means getting their authors (peers) to make them OA.

    If all or most peers made their papers OA of their own accord, that would be it. OA would be upon us.

    But most don’t make their papers OA — for a large variety of reasons, all of them groundless, but nevertheless sufficient to have held back OA for over 20 years now.

    The solution, fortunately, is known, and already being adopted, though not quickly or widely enough yet: OA has to be made mandatory. The peers have to be required by their funders and their institutions to provide OA.

    The only other thing that is needed, then, is to persuade all research funders and institutions to require OA.

    To do that, you have to give them a reason that is sufficient to convince funders, institutions and peers that all research needs to be made OA, hence that OA needs to be made mandatory.

    So it all comes down to what is a sufficient reason for funders and institutions to mandate and peers to provide OA.

    The public’s need for access is a reason for providing OA, to be sure, but not a sufficient reason . Fortunately, it need not be, because peer access is a sufficient reason, and peers are part of the public too, hence OA provides access to both peers and public.

    So why all this empty shadow-boxing about ideology and elitism, when the only thing that matters is pragmatics?

    What will successfully get all peers to provide OA? Telling them that it’s because the public has a burning need to read their papers is a joke, since they all know perfectly well that in most (not all!) fields of research hardly anyone needs or wants to read their papers. The few exceptions do not make it otherwise.

    Nor do they need to. Since making research accessible to all of its potential users (of which the overwhelming majority are of course peers), rather than just to subscribers, is reason enough for funders and institutions to mandate OA, and for peers to provide it.

    Anyone is free to say to funders and institutions that mandate OA primarily to ensure peer access: “No, no, you must do it in order to ensure public, not just peer access access!”

    But it’s a pointless exercise. And will not get OA provided for all of us sooner; it will just distract us from pragmatics in favor of ideology.

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