Open Access – do you really think it’s a good idea?

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I seem to have developed the habit of starting off with questions, but I think that only reflects – or perhaps even highlights – the areas about which I need to know more, or that I have not yet formed a view or understanding that is satisfactory or complete.

Open Access.  This is increasingly a phrase that is associated with ‘digital libraries‘, as much as it is with ‘Google ebooks’ and ‘scholarly communication’.  One understanding is that the results of all publicly funded – i.e. tax-funded – research should be made available freely to all.  This is considered to be a more equitable model than relying on for-profit scholarly journals to publish such materials, where neither the author, nor reviewers, nor author’s employer, nor research funder, receive any portion of the monies that are made by selling subscriptions to such journals.  Is this truly fair?  Doesn’t this mean that wealthier research institutions or nations are supporting those less privileged?  Possibly.  But what’s wrong with that?  Let us never forget that ideas or information cannot change hands like entities: they are more like phenomena in which sharing or exchanging enriches both giver and receiver.  Ideas multiply as they spread, not only proliferating but stimulating new conversations and insights.

There are more serious problems, however.  Now that we are aware that much research is culturally mediated, this would suggest that what is chosen for study, and how entities and phenomena are studied and reported, and how these results are disseminated, may all be governed by some or other hegemonic cultural code.  We would be foolish to think that ‘scientific research’ is, or can ever be, free of such biases.  Thus it would follow that the cultural expressions of scientific knowledge which are created and produced by specific cultural communities would differ, and those which are most prolific would dominate.  Ironically, as has been well documented, these communities would most commonly be found in Minority World (‘developed’) countries, who publish predominantly in English.  The knowledges of the Majority World remain, to all intents and purposes, more or less invisible, particularly in the formal research arenas.  In order to succeed, scholars from the Majority World follow Minority World traditions and mores in order to receive appropriate recognition and respect.

Another problem has come to light with the possibility that ‘Open Access’ may be a snare and a delusion.  There have now been several court cases regarding copyright issues and Google’s proposed digitisation of the library collections of many major academic libraries.  As this constitutes new legal territory which changes as the technologies change, I daresay we have not seen the end of this saga.  But there are three problems that must be resolved in such a case: firstly, will a company or companies (any company, not specifically Google or its relations and descendants) ‘own’ access to all such intellectual properties (even when they are out of copyright) simply through the access mechanisms – the digitisation protocols employed when digitising these works?  Secondly, if access is not dependent on Google’s goodwill (or payment to Google), much existing access to GoogleBooks is only possible if you are a member of the holding library’s community.  So, for example, if you are not a student or staff member of, say, Yale, you cannot digitally read in full all of the works held by the Yale University Library which Google may have already digitised.  Lastly, what will happen to such digitised collections over time?  Will Google continue to update and migrate the data as technologies change?  What if Google, as a company, ceases to exist?  I must say, at this stage it does appear rather unlikely – Google is apparently now entering the travel industry as well – but we know that empires come and empires go, and Google will probably not last nearly as long as the Roman Empire.

Another point that must be made is this: ‘Open Access’ is, to all intents and purposes, a term that can only be used in the digital environment, partly because it is so extraordinarily cheap and easy to transmit and store digital data.  In other words, if you do not have a computer, an internet connection, and a robust download allowance, you remain even more on the back foot.

Many of the decisions regarding Open Access seem to be being taken by people other than librarians (in particular), who have long wrestled with precisely the problems that Open Access once again raises.  Publishers, scholars, tertiary educational establishments, charities, technologists – all of these and more are interested in the phenomenon, but I would like to know to what extent libraries have been consulted (rather than the comments that we make to each other).  Robert Darnton recently suggested a ‘Digital Public Library‘ for the United States of America, and the discussion list on this topic has made it abundantly clear that all of these concepts are unclear and up for grabs:  What exactly do we mean when we say ‘digital’ or ‘public’ or library’ – or ‘document’ or ‘access’ or, indeed, anything else that we thought we had known?

See also: Digital Koans: http://digital-scholarship.org/digitalkoans/2011/04/10/recommendations-for-implementation-of-open-access-in-denmark-final-report-from-the-open-access-committee/

Implementing time travel for the Web http://journal.code4lib.org/articles/4979

Dipping a toe in digital librarianship http://ask.metafilter.com/182934/How-to-dip-a-toe-into-the-ocean-of-Digital-Librarianship

Everybody’s libraries http://everybodyslibraries.com/2011/04/09/opt-in-for-open-access/

Study queries open access benefits http://physicsworld.com/cws/article/news/45657

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Converging ICTs, multidisciplinarity, making knowledge and making meaning.

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