Open Access and the Case for Public
The Scientists' Perspective
By Michelle Romero
Who should have
control over access to scientific knowledge? Who will determine the shape of
the future?" In his keynote speech to the International Symposium on Open Access
and the Public Domain in Digital Data and Information for Science, held March
10-11, 2003, in Paris, France, David Dickson from Science and Development Network
was referring to the impact of science communication on public policy. But
his questions summed up the entire 2-day symposium, which focused on the flow
of scientific information between its creators and users and the threats posed
to it by legal, commercial, and technical pressures. "Focused," however, may
not be quite the right word.
The stated agenda: How to protect the shrinking public domain of information
available to researchers and how to address the opportunities and challenges
posed by digital communication technologies. The real issue: How to balance
the interlocking, often conflicting interests of all stakeholders in scientific
researchincluding researchers, publishers, corporations, and societyand
how to achieve this balance in a wired, commercialized world where the public
good doesn't always come first. A tall order for a 2-day symposium, jointly
organized by the International Council for Science (ICSU), the United Nations
Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the U.S. National
Academies, the Committee on Data for Science and Technology (CODATA), and the
International Council for Scientific and Technical Information (ICSTI).
The symposium offered a platform for a variety of views from panelists representing
academic, government, and nonprofit institutions from 20 different countries,
not to mention a platform for the perspective of scientists as information
users. The symposium was open to the public and was followed by a 1-day, invitation-only
meeting intended to crystallize the key issues to be raised in Geneva at the
first U.N. World Summit on the Information Society, December 10-12, 2003.
The underlying issue isn't new. Public funding for research has been shrinking
for decades. Universities and other research organizations have responded,
with encouragement from the government, by partnering with industry to generate
income from the knowledge their labs create. The resulting commercialization
of both the research process and output, however, collides with the idea that
freely shared informationmade available in the public domain instead
of privatized by industryin turn creates new knowledge that helps everyone.
According to some, this information choke point threatens the long-term survival
of science, at least as it's practiced outside well-endowed groups with specific
research agendas. "Science not only produces data, but is dependent on it to
grow and survive," said symposium chair M.G.K. Menon of Leadership for the
Environment and Development in India. "We cannot deny science its future, and
we must see to it that access is widely available."
In this forum, however, "access" was discussed in dimensions far broader
than data in the public domain, or even "open access" as defined by the free
availability of proprietary information. While there were presentations discussing
comparative national intellectual property frameworks, as well as various government
initiatives in information dissemination, the strongest underlying theme to
emerge was the state of science in the developing world, more specifically,
the difficulty of conducting research with limited resources, in relative obscurity,
and with a pressing need for quality scientific information in all its forms.
This includes (not surprisingly) scholarly journal literature and other commercial
resources. Now within the technical grasp of many researchers in the developing
world thanks to the Internet and other digital technologies, these resources
are effectively blocked to them because they lack the financial means to access
them. Thus, the subject of "open access" consequently evolved into an argument
for "open access to everything."
LIMITED BENEFITS OF SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH
Dr. Massey Beveridge from the Office of International Surgery at the University
of Toronto (UT), Canada, offered a compelling moral argument to broaden the
scope: According to Beveridge, 90 percent of scientific research benefits only
10 percent of the world's population. "The priority has been old people in
rich countries, not productive people in poor countries." This is a frustrating,
arguably tragic state of affairs that explains the blurry lines in the discussion
of access to public domain versus commercial information. But the emphasis
on public good, and on a worldwide scale, enormouslyand predictablycomplicates
the discussion of scientific information vis à vis a public policy framework
which protects everyone's rights.
Beveridge shared the highly positive results demonstrated by UT's Ptolemy
project, which provides free journal article access to 100 university-affiliated
surgeons in East Africa via the Library's pre-existing database licensing agreements.
The presentation was a compelling example of a successful bridge across the
digital divide, but raised eyebrows and several skeptical questions about leveraging
access to university library resources in this fashion. Beveridge held his
ground, stating, "It's a mistake to characterize publishers as large green
drooling things with blood coming off their teeth. They're interested in finding
ways to make this work. They understand that there's an urgent humanitarian
need for this type of research in developing countries."
Perhaps, but is "giving it away thanks to the library" a sustainable knowledge
transfer model that works for all the parties involved? I asked Beveridge if
this sort of publishing initiative was analogous to pharmaceutical companies
giving away drugs to Third World countries. "It's more like cigarette manufacturers
and teen smokingthey have the opportunity to get an entire generation
hooked on quality journals, and then create demand!" An interesting acknowledgment
of the commercial dimension, to be sure.
BROADENING ACCESS TO SCHOLARLY LITERATURE
Several presentations either showcased or made reference to current initiatives
that make scholarly literature more broadly available and unburdened by cost
and legal pressures. To note a few: Bioline International, a nonprofit e-publisher
based at UT, and the International Network for the Availability of Scientific
Publications (INASP), established by the International Council for Science,
highlighted their respective publishing efforts. Each provides a platform for
the dissemination of local research to improve the visibility of the "lost
science" of the developing world, which tends to be excluded from major bibliographic
databases. Other presenters mentioned the Public Library of Science and BioMed
Central as good examples of open access initiatives in which the "public commons" approach
removes the barriers to knowledge access and keeps control in the hands of
Although several presenters acknowledged the validity of commercializing
digital information, their overall perspective as "scientists as information
users" was clear. In summary: Publishers should give away the product for free
when they can't sell it anyway (Ptolemy) and include the overlooked and undercited
work of Third World researchers (Bioline International, International Network
for the Availability of Scientific Publications). Publishers should bill the
contributor (BioMed Central, Public Library of Science), or even bill the funder
(since it's in their interest to see the work published). The differential
pricing model should be expanded.
Robin Cowan, professor of economics of technical change at Maastricht University,
offered a telling anecdote about the potential consequences to non-adaptive
publishers: When the automobile was first invented, the makers of horse and
carriage vehicles lost their ability to make money from their product. Was
the speed of the automobile subsequently restricted to protect the business
of the carriages? "No, we said, 'Too bad, go make something else.'"
Researchers just want to do science. Publishers and industrial enterprises
want to make money from their products. Everyone wants to see lab results translate
into goods that will improve lives in both rich and poor countries. But can
science find the means to thrive in a free-flowing digital information environment
and still serve all its masters? Menon concluded the symposium, saying, "Governments
are impacted by the lobbies of commercial interests. Science is more diffused
and doesn't lobby, per se, for its own interests. But governments will need
to be made to understand, or science's case will be left behind."
Michelle A. Romero [romero.Michele@wanado.fr] is
an independent information consultant in the process of relocating from Paris,
France, to Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Comments? E-mail letters to the editor to firstname.lastname@example.org.