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Open Access for the Other 85%

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 One of the things that struck me on my first visit to Cape Town in 2011 was how clean the toilets are. In restaurants, at the University, in public places. Sometimes a bit worn down but always clean. And then you start to notice how clear and clean the pavements are and your first response, well at least my first response, is that this is a sign of things going right. One element of the whole is working well in the midst of what is obviously a country tackling serious problems and inequality.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 But the main reason for this is that labour is cheap and plentiful, mass unemployment being a consequence of just those serious problems. And suddenly it seems less positive.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 This was just the first of many times that my unexamined assumptions about what I was seeing were blown away. The temptation for the (North) Western do-gooder is to offer advice; experience of first world development programs, but it became clear very quickly how little of the context that I understood. The problems on the ground are often not the obvious ones – the solutions rarely easy visible from the privileged perspective of the global north. I learnt to offer advice that was tactical, not strategic; routes towards the desired goal, not the direction of travel.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 So Heather Morrison’s arguments on the use of Creative Commons for open access1, arriving as it did in the middle of that first visit to Cape Town, troubled me.  I am a strong partisan of the OA = CC-BY view and indeed tend to the view that we should place things in the public domain. Heather’s view is that more restrictive licenses better reflect the norms and interests of the research community. So my first response was a rejection. But inside her argument is a claim that non-commercial terms can better protect the ability of disadvantaged researchers and their communities to exploit their knowledge to their own advantage.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 These arguments are always worth taking apart because they help to illuminate the practicalities of how we take scholarly communication and make it valuable to people. It helps to pull apart the issues and raise important use cases, and the effective use of research to aid development is a key use case. But in the end I disagree with the idea that more restrictive licenses protect the rights of the disadvantaged. And I disagree on two levels.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 I gave a presentation at the University of Cape Town where I talked in part about some of our open science work and a question was asked “have you thought about how accessible this is in rural Africa”. My lame answer was that we have thought about it and worried about it but not actually done anything. But the better answer for me was that it is far better for the people on the ground who really know the infrastructure, and the need, to decide what is required and do the appropriate format conversion, the printing and distribution than for us in the UK or the US to presume to know what it is of most value. This, after all is the principle of open access, allowing others to re-use as appropriate for their context precisely because we don’t know what those uses may be.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 And non-commercial restrictions will break this in the developing world. Right where that research is needed the communications infrastructure is patchy and in many cases non-existent. Getting that research to people, whether the raw communication, or processed or text mined material can require paper, and trucks to transport. It may require translation in format or in language or in form. All of these things cost money and in choosing non-commercial terms we would be condemning those who could use this material to relying on charity, or which is in some cases worse, governments. A service industry that charges someone, somewhere, for production, translation, and transport is ruled out as a possible business model. Exploitation is a value-laden term, particularly in the context of Africa but in its pure and ideal sense it is neutral. We want to see research exploited for good. In choosing non-commercial terms we are dictating the way that exploitation can occur. The risks of exploitation and expropriate are real and we should not ignore them are. But I don’t think licences are the way to deal with it. By using legal instruments we take those key choices out of the hands of those best placed to make them.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 And this is the more insidious issue from my perspective. The thing I learned in a week in Cape Town was that the last thing scholars in the developing world need is for us to make decisions for them. What we need to do, as a community, is to ensure that people can make the widest possible range of choices. Don’t get me wrong, using CC BY has some risks in that regard, and Public Domain Dedications like cc0 perhaps more, but if we act to preserve the principle of giving people the space to make their own decisions based on local knowledge and local needs, then that is the biggest contribution we can make.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 It’s not just licensing. One of the biggest holes in the entire fabric of the Open Access movement, is the lack of a principled and rational stance on author payment charges. Just offering waivers is simply patting people on the head and saying “oh don’t worry we won’t make you pay”. It is not just patronising, it is damaging to our credibility and damaging to our own progress. One of the other key lessons I learnt from a week listening to people in Cape Town is how far ahead of the traditional centres of scholarship they are on some issues. I spend a lot of time in the UK and the US trying to convince people that there is an issue; that we need to look at how our research matters to the wider community. In South Africa the needs are clear, and scholars want to make a difference. The question is how, and how to tell when it is working.  They are damn good at this. We could learn a lot from these people about how to balance the pursuit of prestige and “research with impact” that seems to be such a struggle for those of us in the “developed” North.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 We need to think of the global scholarly community, not as made up of “us” and “those who are catching up”, but as made up of different groups with different priorities and different needs, and crucially with different experiences and value to bring to a global endeavour. The creation of a “special OA” for the developing world runs the risk of perpetuating a view in which 85% of the world will always be catching up. Yes we need to try and build systems that ensure access to all scholarship, primary and derived. How to do that is an important debate, and one I hope will be at the centre of the Berlin10 conference to be held in Stellenbosch in South Africa next year. To not use that meeting to address the issues and challenges of business models and safeguards that help preserve access and optimise impact for the developing world would be a terrible loss2.

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 Open Access is about enabling people, enabling business, and enabling development. There is a global community of scholars who get that, who want to be part of the wider community, and have their own skills and expertise to bring. They also want to share and contribute to the resource needs of scholarly communication in an appropriate and equitable way. We need to enable them to do that and get out of their way. After all, we might learn something.

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 Notes: Originally published as “Open Access for the other 85%” on Science in the Open on December 12, 2011. 

  1. 13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0
  2. Morrison, H (2011), Dissension in the open access ranks on CC licenses and strategy tips for scholarly publishers, The Imaginary Journal of Poetic Economics (blog), available online at http://poeticeconomics.blogspot.co.uk/2011/12/dissension-in-open-access-ranks-on-cc.html
  3. Berlin10 was held in 2012. As a meeting it certainly raised many of those issues. It’s hard to say that it solved them, but at least it marked a point where those of us from the North Atlantic heard a different perspective. It is I think possible to trace a greater engagement from several key people with the implementation of Open Access beyond Europe and North America to that meeting. Nonetheless the assumption that the transition to Open Access is one for the traditional centres of western scholarship to work out, and that the rest of the world can then follow along and reap the benefits still pervades many conversations, not least those on the flipping of subscription budgets to APC budgets
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