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

Yale University's Sterling Memorial Library, a...

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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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Digitising Africa

The Union Building in Pretoria, South Africa.

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In my opinion (and by now, you are probably aware that I have several of them!), digitisation probably holds the most advantages for the Majority World.  For those who I’ve never met, what I call the ‘Majority World’ is what others call ‘developing’ or ‘third world’.  I think that both of these terms are derogatory, suggesting the marginalised ‘other’ in binary pair conceptualisation.  The Minority World is just that: those of us lucky enough to have access to more than one meal a day, electricity, clean water, sewerage systems, medical care and education are in the minority of the world’s population.

I am glad to share, therefore, this announcement of a forthcoming meeting on digital curation which will take place in South Africa.  Perhaps some of you will be in a position to attend. I particularly like their reference to the importance of collaboration: the very concept that inspired this blog!

From: Dr Martie van Deventer (mvandeve@csir.co.za)

The draft programme for the Fourth African Scholarship and Curation
Conference (and its workshops) from 17-19 May 2011 has been posted on
the website: see http://www.nedicc.ac.za/test/Programme.aspx. The
registration function has been activated. We look forward to welcoming
you at the conference!

There is an early bird discount (providing we receive your registration
fees before 15 April 2011).

We would appreciate your assistance in distributing information about
the conference to colleagues in Africa.

4th African Conference for Digital Scholarship and Curation

Dates: 17 -19 May 2011

Venue: CSIR International Convention Centre, Pretoria, South Africa

*Innovation & collaboration in the digital research and learning
environments*

Collaboration is an acknowledged and important source of innovative thinking. The rapid development of new and emerging technologies have ensured that the creation and pursuit of new ideas can be brought to community by networks of individuals, selected because of their individual contributions and credibility, and operating in a coordinated manner. This conference will attempt to surface some of the innovations brought about as a result of such collaborations.  We will also endeavour to highlight the role technology plays in enabling collaborations and in collectively building repositories of data and knowledge.

The deployment of powerful computers, high-speed networks, and large scale storage technologies has made the academic and research landscape increasingly dynamic. Emerging professional are much more information and computer literate than ever before.  They also have a very different expectation for both the university and work experience. These transformations oblige us in academia, research and the general information service provision industry to seriously seek and develop strategies and solutions to effectively harness the new opportunities.
The 2-day conference is organized under the joint banner of the Network of Data and Information Curation Centres (NeDICC), the University of Botswana and the University of Pretoria (South Africa). The conference will address various issues of digital scholarship, digital curation and the accompanying emerging technologies.