The only purpose of open access to research literature is to provide the widest possible distribution of the latest research findings to the global community and to enable the development of new knowledge for the benefit of mankind. And the prime need for this international sharing of research knowledge is the increasing urgency to solve the planet’s problems – climate change, new infectious diseases (swine flu, avian flu, malaria . . .), other diseases, hunger, poverty, drought, flooding . . . the list is endless.
Now, we are able to take advantage of the Internet and its world wide reach and make essential research available through this means. But online distribution is not enough since the regions facing the gravest problems cannot afford commercial access to all the information they need. So free-of-cost access is also needed, coupled with the freedom to copy and share the content.
Now that we have the infrastructure (in much of the world), we have watched as two means of providing access have emerged: 1) to deposit copies of refereed published articles in open access institutional repositories (or linked centralised repositories) or 2) to publish in open access journals. As these new paradigms for academic knowledge-sharing get underway, advocates of the twin tracks are developing many new supporting applications, establishing standards, setting up networks, providing statistical packages and much else to improve their services.
This is all wonderful, but the promotion of the two parallel mechanisms is confusing newcomers and creating divisions in the OA community. While acknowledging that both routes (known now as the green and gold tracks respectively) are commendable, it seems very clear that the fastest route to sharing essential research has to be through the establishment of institutional repositories (IRs). Why? Because they are low cost (free software), quick to set up (minimal sysop time, much free online and offline help available), can be established without the need to set up new bodies (editorial boards, publishing partners, refereeing procedures/participating referees) and finance them, provide global access wherever the articles were published and, most importantly, the author communities can continue to follow existing procedures – publishing for free in their favourite journals. For more information on all aspects of OA – academic, technical and policy – visit the Open Access Scholarly Information Sourcebook (OASIS).
As we know, all that authors must do to encompass OA and benefit from global distribution of their publications, is ‘the few key strokes’ needed to deposit copies of their accepted articles in their own IRs, thus complying with the steadily increasing number of institutional/funder mandates. But OA-deniers say that progress is very slow and authors are not complying with deposit requirements. So I have checked the numbers of articles deposited in the IRs in two developing countries, India and South Africa, and in the UK.
Totalling the number of deposits in the ROAR database on November 11th 2009, the following were recorded:
India 47,809 deposits
South Africa 22,222 deposits
UK 718,530 deposits
In these three countries alone, therefore, approaching 800,000 deposits have been made. And as there are now >1500 IRs registered in the ROAR database today, you can work out that already significant steps have been taken to free the world’s research literature. And while it is true that not every deposit will be a full text research article (there will be theses, reports, presentations too), all this information is important and now free to all, to be built on and used as the academic communities require. But more needs to be done.
So what are today’s OA priorities?
The globally connected community of research workers, communications specialists and their financial backers needs to stop a moment and think about the priorities for OA’s future.
Is the priority to protect the quality of research publications?
Or to advance the careers of researchers?
Or to promote the stature of research institutes?
Or to help funding organisations assess the value of their investments?
Or to ensure the continuity of journals?
While all these are very important and greatly helped by open access - and ways to achieve them are rightly being discussed - they are not what open access is primarily for. [Nor is it a priority to protect the profits of the commercial publishing industry, which has benefited from free material for their journals, free refereeing and free professional effort on editorial boards]. To repeat – open access is solely to advance research and allow new knowledge to be shared, developed and used for the future benefit of mankind.
For economically poor countries, the development of the fastest, lowest cost route to open access is a ‘no brainer’. It’s a major priority. The developing world urgently needs the establishment and filling of IRs right now. Without a strong research base, the poorer countries will forever depend on donations and will be unable to contribute their essential and unique knowledge to the world’s information pool.
Since starting to write this post a comprehensive article appeared in the Times Higher Education supplement, together with a Leader on the same topic.
Coincidentally, many of the points raised in this blog have been clearly and well aired in the THES piece, so you may find it interesting to link to the article and the appended comments. Of associated importance are the open access journals published in the developing countries, for example SciELO, Bioline International, MedKnow Publications and many others, filling the S to N knowledge gap and bringing researchers in these regions into the international research community.