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Magazines > Information Today > December 2003
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Information Today
Vol. 20 No. 11 — December 2003
OPINION
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 laws—not 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 a fortune."

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 grander vision.

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 publishers—bless their hearts—are 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 strides—working within the existing system—to vastly expand information access and even helped close the digital divide. But, they conclude, governments should not be the ones to decide which publishers survive.

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 kaser@infotoday.com.
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