The Politics of Open Access
By Dick Kaser
The battle of words over how research results should best be distributed heated
up again this fall. And once again, the heat was coming from Europe.
In late October, a conference sponsored by the venerable Max Planck Society
in Germany produced and issued the "Berlin Declaration on Open Access to Knowledge
in the Sciences and Humanities" (http://www.zim.mpg.de/openaccess-berlin/berlindeclaration.html).
A few weeks later, STM, the international scholarly publishers' association
based in The Hague, countered with a defense of traditional publishing models
and warned that too rapid a movement to open access could actually jeopardize
scholarship, not improve it (http://www.stmassoc.org/newsflash/openaccess.html).
The arguments on both sides are not unfamiliar.
On one hand, wouldn't it be nice if, in an Internet-enabled world, scholarly
research results could fly around the Web as readily as e-mail, unfettered
and unrestricted by arcane publishing models and archaic copyright lawsnot
to mention outmoded academic reward systems. If only everyone would just agree
to get with the program, we'd be living in intellectual Utopia tomorrow, never
mind the true cost.
On the other hand, the classical, but decidedly digital, publishers argue
back: "You really don't understand how good you've got it. We've bent over
backwards to figure out how to get this job done right, pay for it all, and
for all intents and purposes, get research results into the hands of those
who need them, even if the stuff isn't available 24/7 to everyone with an Internet
access account. Besides, what you're talking about is going to cost the public
This debate always sounds to me like two estranged lovers fighting over child
custody. Much is written between the lines.
However, little has been left out of the Berlin document, which is the clearest
articulation of open access principles so far. Coming on the heels of the Bethesda
Statement and building on the Budapest Initiative, the new declaration borrows
key points from the earlier attempts but expresses them in terms of a much
According to this new proclamation, open access is not just about journal
articles. It's about anything related to research, including data and metadata.
No, strike that. It's about anything related to knowledge and cultural heritage,
including museum stuff. It's also about the software and enabling technologies
that provide the infrastructure for scholars to share and archive their knowledge
in an open environment.
And it's not all just blue sky. This statement carries real punch.
It is endorsed by organizations with the power to influence, if not directly
manage, the conditions under which research grants are awarded. These statements
advocate cultural change in academic publishing habits by attaching strings
to research awards. The terms will be simple. You want the money? Then publish
the results in open access media.
If these opinion leaders can now only convince governments to go along with
similar funding conditions, they will get the open access model pushed down
the throat of anyone who does research for the public sector. And that would
be just about everyone who publishes. The world would suddenly get widespread
open access, for better or worse.
The commercial publishersbless their heartsare putting forward
their best arguments as to why the current system of scholarly communication
shouldn't just be tossed aside to make room for a new and exciting, but unproven,
paradigm. They are also clearly lining up their ducks for what promises to
be a legislative shootout.
From their perspective, the open access initiatives to date are nothing more
than new publishers operating on alternate financial models. They say they
welcome the competition. They say that they themselves have invested heavily
in using new technology and have taken stridesworking within the existing
systemto vastly expand information access and even helped close the digital
divide. But, they conclude, governments should not be the ones to decide which
And thus, like a couple on their way to divorce court, the two sides have
squared off. I'm not taking bets on who'll be left standing, but I suspect
it will be both.
Dick Kaser is Information Today, Inc.'s vice president of
content. His e-mail address is email@example.com.