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Magazines > Online > July / August 2003
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Online Magazine
Vol. 27 No. 4 — July/August 2003
Open Access and the Case for Public Good: 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 research—including researchers, publishers, corporations, and society—and 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 information—made available in the public domain instead of privatized by industry—in 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."


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, enormously—and predictably—complicates 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 smoking—they 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.


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 authors.

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 [] 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
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