Open Access: Information Should Be Free

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Open Access is rapidly becoming a new standard in scholarly publishing. In light of this, as well as the recent USA federal shutdown, I thought I’d have a stab at the changing priorities of the scientific community with regards to freedom of information.

This week is the 6th Annual Open Access Week (#OAweek if you’re into hashtagging). Open Access is a new standard that encourages free and immediate online access to academic writing, for everybody. The movement was started by one Michael Eisen, an academic that objected to the autocracy of the traditional publishing houses, and chose to go it alone, using a wildly different publishing model: give it away, for free. Along with Patrick Brown and Harold Varmus, Eisen abandoned the major publishing houses, and started PLOS (Public Library of Science) which publishes papers based on academic merit and nothing else. No hidden agendas, no pandering to major associations, and no exploitation of academic libraries.

Open Access has a lot in common with anti-snooping campaigns, the Creative Commons movement and media piracy, in that major corporations with vested interests will go to great lengths to stop it. For instance, by trying to get an anti-open access bill passed in the USA (blame Elsevier for that one). But more recently, governments around the world are choosing to enforce Open Access policies for academic articles, particularly in the sciences. And the large publishing houses have started to realise that they will be left behind unless they can change with the times. I believe the expression is ‘adapt or die’.

The popularisation of open access is part of a greater move away from the ‘information silos‘ approach to scientific research, where every lab and institute jealously hoarded their data against the vague chance that they will get more papers out of it. These days, scientific data by the gigabyte is freely available online, to do with what you will, all for a little credit where it’s due. As part of this trend, Nature has just announced a data journal, where they will publish (under Open Access, of course) valuable, high quality data sets for free usage. It’s a revolution, happening under our very noses.

As an aside, it is interesting to me to contrast this new attitude towards open access to data with the priorities on display during the federal shutdown in the USA. Enforcing open access through legal means shows a real political will to enhance public access to good quality science. But during the federal shutdown, scientific progress got a kick in the teeth: NASA, CDC, the NIH, the National Science foundation – the list of scientific agencies that just stopped goes on and on. In addition, countless long-running experiments (like these in the Antarctic) were just disabled. Much has been made of the $24 billion in economic losses, but I think the scientific losses are more concerning.

Bickering politicians aside, I think that the move towards open access is really encouraging. It is positioning scientific knowledge – and public access to that knowledge – as a national and global priority. This can only be a good thing for our society: science and the scientific method are responsible for the rapid technological advancement of the last few centuries, and it would be a tragedy to have that stopped by corporate greed or political expedience. I would like to see a world where every bit of scientific research is available, to anyone, for free. It may take a few years, but I believe that it will happen. Long live Open Access!

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