Common Knowledge

Happy Open Access Day…

So today is Open Access Day.

(If you don’t know what Open Access is, get thee to Peter Suber’s blog for background).

I’ve spent a lot of the past week in and around OA meetings. I went to the Bethesda 2 meeting on Friday at Howard Hughes Medical Institute, where a lot of the people who started the movement were gathered to talk about the next five years. I’m sitting in a meeting of scientists in NYC right now trying to figure out how principles of OA, expanded to include the idea of open for data, databases, biological materials, and more, can transform the way rare diseases get explored and treated. I’m going on from here to Philadelphia and then Tallahassee this week, all in the service of how open makes innovation happen faster.

OA’s gone a long way since the BBB declarations. OA day itself has exploded in the last year. And I salute it – since I got involve myself four years ago it’s been a constant source of joy, frustration, and frequent flyer miles. I love the ideas and have made dear friends in the pursuit of global OA.

But today there’s plenty of congratulations to go around. I’d rather focus on some of the things I think we need to do…

In all my work, what strikes me again and again is a set of repeated elements, whether I’m at a meeting of OA evangelists or a small working group of neuroscientists, knowledge managers or university faculty.

First, the original debate about libraries and cost, though essential, is woefully insufficient. The cost of journal articles is a severe problem – especially in the developing world – and is a legitimate part of the debate. But it’s just not the core of the problem in my eyes – the problem is that closed access stifles new development, not that it’s expensive.

Second, the anger in the debate is hurting, not helping – on both sides. I’m not saying that anger isn’t justified. Hamhanded efforts like the PRISM astroturf attack on access are infuriating, misleading, and in bad faith. But so too are some of the attacks on the publishers, many of whom are struggling in good faith to figure out how to survive in a weird and different world than the one they were used to. I’d like to see those of us in the OA movement spend more time brainstorming on how business models that exploit the new world of open might work – if we can convince the businesses involved that open makes more money than closed, then the markets start to help us and not fight against us.

Third, as Hal Abelson notes, most of us who care about this stuff live in the future. We see the world as we believe it must be, and we hack towards it every day. We don’t always think about how deeply strange that new world feels to those of us who don’t live in the future. This fits into point two but is somewhat different – it’s about the individual, not the institution. We need to explain to the individual scientist why open means more impact, just as we need to explain to the individual citizen why open means better value for tax dollars invested in research.

Fourth, there aren’t enough powerful examples of how open changes everything. We need some unambiguous stories of invention and discovery, of scientific breakthroughs impossible without openness, and we need to hammer them in unison. There’s nothing more powerful than a shared set of stories.

Anyhow. It’s a day for celebration, and a day to be proud we’re all part of an earthchanging movement in scholarly communication. Let’s just not forget how long we have been fighting and how far we still have to go.

ps – i got a great comment on my first post about common sense v. common knowledge. i’ll be on a train today for hours and plan to reply to that one in a new post.


  1. #1 Peter Matthews
    October 25, 2008

    Hi John,

    Thanks for the challenge. I think I have part of the answer: mainy of the costs that all serious publishers face, whether traditional or open access, are associated with (a) training staff, and (b) finding trained staff, and (c) building a human network of contributors, editors, translators, and reviewers who can help with the particular problems faced by each publication.

    I am now trying to solve all of these problems at the same time with a NPO website I have created – the Research Cooperative (see link above).

    The Cooperative encourages young researchers, experienced researchers, editors or translators who need experience, and professional editors or translators publishers, and so on, to all mingle and communicate and support each other with offers and requests for help (volunteer or paid).

    I see a bottleneck in communication about the entire practical process of research communication, and what is needed to overcome this is not just more money, but suitable venues that encourage more effective communication, and that provide opportunities for people to gain experience, as writers, editors, translators, publishers, and so on, regardless of location and financial status.

    There is an exponentially growing range of technical opportunities for publishing and physical delivery, including open-access publishing, but the human support networks needed to create and maintain well-regarded publications are lagging far behind.

    If these human support networks, and their development, can also become open access (as at the Research Cooperative), and large scale (as I hope the Cooperative will become) then this may allow commercial and non-commercial publishers to differentiate not in their academic quality and content but in their style, archival functions, and social appeal.

    The profit margins of a commercial publisher might depend, for example, on the production of hardbound copies of certain kinds of journal on high-quality archival paper (an art history journal for example), while the online version is more-or-less open access. Or a commercial publisher might provide more robust, long-term archival arrangements, including assistance in the maintenance of digital research archives associated with the research being published.

    Commercial publishers can also add value by managing the human relationships needed for effective publishing support networks, leaving academic institutions and societies (where potential authors are cultivated) free to focus more directly on research activities, the early stages of writing, and conferences.

    Until now, the scientific or academic open access movement has focused mainly on the end product, the published results, and less on the human aspects of the publishing process, which is where many efforts and costs are still required.

    I am new to this debate, so forgive me if I happen to be going backwards in the argument…

    Best regards, Peter

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