Thursday, December 13, 2007

Open access

I recently moved between universities: from the University of Cape Town to the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal. Unfortunately, my new university is a bit under resourced and doesn't have institutional access to quite a few journals. (Including fairly prominent ones). It was then (and particularly when I started blogging) that I realized just how frustrating, annoying and counter-productive the barriers to accessing knowledge really is. I suspect many people who access the web mainly from their well-financed institutions also fail to realize just what an issue this can be.

The bottom line with respect to open access is this: scholars do research, peer review it and even edit the journals, all without expecting to be paid. (Researchers get paid by their institutions, of course, and part of their job description is usually producing academic papers - the point is scholars don't expect to be paid by journals for their work). The publishing houses, however, charge exorbitant prices for access to their scholarly journals and the result is a high financial barrier. There was a time the arrangement between the scholarly community and publishers made sense: before the internet was created, when journals had to be printed in order to be distributed. Since it's now possible to distribute journal articles digitally at extremely low cost, this relationship has become outdated and unnecessary. As the Budapest Open Access Initiate put it, the internet makes possible :

world-wide electronic distribution of the peer-reviewed journal literature and completely free and unrestricted access to it by all scientists, scholars, teachers, students, and other curious minds. Removing access barriers to this literature will accelerate research, enrich education, share the learning of the rich with the poor and the poor with the rich, make this literature as useful as it can be, and lay the foundation for uniting humanity in a common intellectual conversation and quest for knowledge.

Open access is good for everyone except those companies with a vested interest in the status quo. We should not let a special interest group stand in the way of a great public good being realized.

What to do? If you are an author, self-archive and consider publishing in open access journals. (Opening access, by the way, seems to increase an article's readership and impact). Everybody else, spread the word (e.g.: join my group on Facebook: "Support Open Access"), support open access journals (read them, cite them) and sign the Budapest Open Access Initiative if you haven't done so already.

P.s. Yes, I realize I'm late on the bandwagon.

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