Thursday, April 06, 2006

Back to nature

Information, in its natural state, flows freely. It spreads to wherever it can go, like water. It grows even in the process. Like the biblical loaves and fishes, which fed thousands and when everyone was satisfied, the remains amounted to more than the original basket full. Substitute 'food for thought' for 'food' in that story, and it doesn't sound so miraculous at all anymore. This is not an argument in favour of open access along the lines of "information wants to be free", since information has no mind of its own and doesn't want anything. Instead, it's just an observation. We have to do almost nothing for information to flow freely. Especially not now the internet enables that flow so easily. We do, however, need to employ all manner of artificial constructs if we want to restrict its flow: legal ones, such as copyright; technological ones, such as authentication procedures; and cultural ones, such as censorship.

For information and knowledge, open access is nature. Unfortunately, the second part of this sentence cannot be reversed and still be true, but that may yet come. Also unfortunate is that considerable amounts of intellectual efforts as well as financial resources are devoted to keeping the constructs needed to restrict information up to the task and enforceable. This is particularly unfortunate in the academic realm, where information and knowledge is primarily generated to be added to the 'noosphere', the knowledge sphere on which the whole world should be able to draw.

The reason why so much effort is being spent on restricting the free flow of information is clear, of course. Validating, organising, and disseminating information and knowledge is costly, is a value added to make the information and knowledge usable and reliable, and needs to be paid for somehow. Restrictions make it possible subsequently to require payment for lifting them.

It is widely understood – and rarely contested – that the tremendous value added by the science publishing industry to organising and providing ways to validate scientific information and knowledge and make it reliable, needs to be paid. However, the question that needs to be asked is, shouldn't the formidable intellectual efforts and resources that are now being spent on maintaining and refining the ancient restriction regime, be better spent on finding new ways to financially support the free flow of information and knowledge, suited to the circumstances of today? Especially since, ironically, that regime was developed centuries ago when copyright was conceived as a way of supporting the technology of its day in order to make the information flow more freely.

Open access is nature. Is it not better to harness and use the forces of nature to our benefit, rather than to fight them?

Jan Velterop

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