Sunday, April 29, 2012

OA not just for institutionalised scientists

On the Global Open Access List, an email list, a thread has developed on 'Open Access Priorities: Peer Access and Public Access'. Of course, true open access means access both for peers (meaning fellow-scientists, in this case, not just members of the UK House of Lords) and for the general public at large, so the discussion is really about what is more important and what is the more persuasive argument to get research scientists to make their publications available with open access. And should that argument mainly be quasi-legal, in the form of institutional mandates.

My view is this:

Is it not so that when there is no wide cultural or societal support for whatever law or mandate, more effort is generally being spent on evasion than on compliance and enforcement turns out to be like mopping up with the tap still running? If one should be taking examples from US politics, the 'war on drugs' is the one to look at.

Forcing scientists into open access via mandates and the like is only ever likely to be truly successful if it is rooted in an already changing culture. An academic culture with an expectation that research results are openly available to all. By the shame that researchers will be made to feel in the lab, at dinner parties, or in the pub, if their results are not published with open access. Of course that will still be mainly peer-pressure, but changing hearts and minds of peers is greatly helped if there were a societal substrate in which the open culture can grow. Mandates or not, OA will never happen if scientists aren't convinced from within. An appeal to them as human beings and members of society is more likely to achieve that than mandates, in my view. The latter should back up a general change of heart, not be a substitute for it.

What is 'the general public' should not be misunderstood and be construed to be only those interested in medical literature. It includes all those interested in the other 999 areas as well. Ex scientists, retired scientists, start-ups and SMEs, scientists interested in another discipline or cross-discipline topics, students, lawyers, reporters, teachers, even hobbyists. Einstein wasn't an institutionalised scientist when he worked on his most important work; he was a patent clerk.

Of course, those OA evangelists who wish to pursue mandates should be pursuing mandates. I encourage them to keep doing just that. But to narrow the efforts of OA evangelism to what is stubbornly being called "the quickest route", in spite of it being no more than a hypothesis which
certainly over the last decade and a half hasn't proved itself to be as effective as first thought, is a mistake.

By all means where there are opportunities to promote mandates let us do that, but not at the expense of making the moral and societal responsibility case for OA.

Jan Velterop

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