28 October 2011

Open Access Week: "OA as Humanitarian Aid"

This blog is a testament to the amazing amount of information that is available online - all gratis OA at a minimum, some no doubt libre OA as well. But the fact is that there is a wealth of critical research that remains inaccessible. I use the sidebar of this blog to highlight articles in so-called Toll Access (TA), or fee-based, journals. The complete texts of these articles can certainly be accessed via academic libraries, but not everyone has access to these collections. They can also be purchased directly, but not every researcher, policymaker or practitioner has the budget to do so.

In wrapping up Open Access Week, I leave you with some thoughts from Peter Suber, who is a leading OA advocate. He wrote an article for the April 2011 edition of SPARC Enews entitled "Open Access as Humanitarian Aid," which cites examples of publishers who temporarily lift price and permission barriers on what is normally fee-based research in an effort to facilitate relief and recovery efforts after major disasters have occurred. Here's a portion of it:

Lifting access barriers in an emergency is a public acknowledgment that research is more useful when OA than when TA [toll access]. It confirms what I've called the OA principle: the more knowledge matters, the more OA to that knowledge matters.

This proposition doesn't compare one set of OA articles with a control group of TA articles that might or might not be relevantly similar. We're talking about one and the same set of articles and data, without any "self-selection bias" or any of the other alleged confounders complicating the analysis of the citation impact advantage. Research is more useful after we lift access barriers than it was before, and publishers who lift access barriers in emergencies are admitting that.

This is the heart of the case for OA. It makes research more useful. When research is gratis OA, it reaches more people who can make use of it. Users needn't go without, and needn't rely on slow, unscalable methods like interlibrary loan and emails to authors. When research is libre OA, it can be used and reused in ways that exceed fair use. Users needn't slow down to ask for permission, risk proceeding without it, or err on the side of non-use.

Publishers may have financial reasons not to provide OA themselves. But reasons to stop short of gold OA [open access provided via OA journals] aren't reasons to stop short of green OA [open access provided via self-archiving]. In any case, arguments against permitting or mandating green OA must be weighed against the fundamental background acknowledgement that OA research is more useful than TA research. My hope is that every publisher will remember this acknowledgement when considering or reconsidering its access policies. We need research to be as useful as possible every day, in routine circumstances, and not just in times of disaster. The "we" here are not just researchers but everyone who depends on research. The stakes are not always elevated by earthquake and tsunami, but they are elevated by illness, climate change, environmental degradation, species extinction, unsafe technologies, unsolved problems, and uninformed policies.

Suber concludes, "There is an access problem. Working on solutions to this problem is not incendiary, but humanitarian in the broadest sense."

Tagged Publications.

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