I thought I’d take the time to provide some commentary on an issue that has attracted a lot of attention from Open Access supporters here in Germany recently. A few weeks ago, science blogger Lars Fischer started an e-petition on the website of the Bundestag (German parliament) calling for Open Access to publications based on research that is publicly funded. To date, the petition has been signed by over 11,000 people, making it the most-endorsed open petition currently in the system (the vote
ends on November 22nd has apparently been extended to December 22nd).
The wording of the petition is cautious and deliberately vague, meaning it doesn’t suggest any precise steps to be taken. It cites the NIH mandate that makes it a requirement for all NIH-funded research to be retroactively published in PubMed as an example of how to make research results available to the general public.
Fisher provides background information on the petition and his motivation in this interview with Richard Poynder and has also answered a few questions for Heinz Pampel and me in wisspub.net (in German; also read Lars’ own blog post on the subject).
The striking thing about the petition is not that it gives precise policy recommendations (it doesn’t) or contains meticulous explanations of what Open Access is (it doesn’t), but that is has attracted popular support extending well beyond the “usual suspects” from the OA scene.
How did that happen?
While I can’t provide absolute proof, I think the short answer is the Social Web. Fisher’s petition was scooped up by people who ordinarily have little to do with the Open Access community, which consists mostly of librarians and academics, but who are very much invested into the idea of Openness in other contexts: open (government) data, no censorship of the Internet, digital privacy rights etc. There is a budding political movement in Germany and elsewhere and the petition was interpreted as congruent with the goals of this movement and therefore spread with according speed. It was featured on Netzpolitik.org, which is frequently ranked as Germany’s most popular blog, and one prolific supporter is social media personality Sascha Lobo, who placed a banner on his website calling for support of the petition. Meanwhile, several German organizations lobbying for Open Access have posted press releases on their sites or offer flyers in support of the petition for downloading and printing. To the crowd that has been made aware of Open Access via the abovementioned blogs, a printed flyer may seem idiosyncratic to say the least. These are not public servants who support Open Access primarily because it’s their job, these are people who believe publicly funded research should be available to everyone on the Internet.
Lars makes this point in the interview with Richard Poynder:
As far as I see it, Open Access has always been treated — even by its supporters — as a niche topic for experts. But that is wrong. It is an issue that in the long run concerns everyone, and many people understand that.
My opinion (and not just mine) is that Open Access should be treated as the broad societal issue it really is, not just as a nifty way for libraries to save money or researchers to communicate more effectively. Not that there is anything wrong with those two points, but we are utterly out of touch with reality if we believe that that is something the public cares about very much, or needs to care about.
Cameron Neylon nails it in my opinion in this excellent post on Open Research:
A good question to ask at this point is “Why?” Why do I do these things? Why does the government fund me to do them? Actually it’s not so much why the government funds them as why the public does. Why does the taxpayer support our work? Even that’s not really the right question because there is no public. We are the public. We are the taxpayer. So why do we as a community support science and research? Historically science was carried out by people sufficiently wealthy to fund it themselves, or in a small number of cases by people who could find wealth patrons. After the second world war there was a political and social concensus that science needed to be supported and that concensus has supported research funding more or less to the present day. But with the war receding in public memory we seem to have retained the need to frame the argument for research funding in terms of conflict or threat. The War on Cancer, the threat of climate change. Worse, we seem to have come to believe our own propaganda, that the only way to justify public research funding is that it will cure this, or save us from that. And the reality is that in most cases we will probably not deliver on this.
I think it is extremely brave and laudable of Cameron to bring up this question – the touchiest of all, in a sense, because it’s the one you’re trained to never really ask as an academic. What is it all good for? Does my research really benefit the public, or is that just a mantra that we keep repeating to ourselves out of habit? He puts the question of academia’s usefulness into a historical perspective to make the point that there is no natural law saying that we must have publicly funded research simply because researchers like doing what they do. There are sound reasons why we have it, of course. But Cameron makes a very strong case for Open Science as being the basis of any kind of research in the long-term future, because a lack of openness means a lack of accountability, and without accountability society might simple decide at some point that it doesn’t really need to pump money into the production of knowledge it is then prevented for accessing.
The Web has made it incredibly easy to find information for anyone who can formulate a search query. We cannot anticipate who the person searching for information may be, what their background knowledge is and whether they can tell a reliable source from an unreliable one. We are allowed to hope for these things, sure, but it’s not our job to make the judgment about who gets to read what we publish and who doesn’t. It’s our job to put it out there and let the Web do the rest.
Do we need better science communication? Yes, certainly.
Does Open Access need to be financially viable? Of course.
But all common arguments against Open Access – “the general public has no interest in/doesn’t understand scientific publications anyway”, “we can’t do anything that would endanger traditional publishing models because we cannot do science without publishers”, “there is no quality control in with OA” – are either shortsighted, arrogant, factually wrong or outright silly, yet OA advocates address them relentlessly with the goal of winning over a generation that, from a pessimistic point of view, will never regard Openness as an equally essential basic principle as the one that is retweeting calls to sign the petition and writing blog posts about it.
If you get the Internet, Open Access is a no-brainer – in a sense the success of the petition has already proven that point. Social media appeals to people who use the Net as their primary source of information and who accordingly believe that information should be free. In other words, they believe in Open Access, even without knowing Peter Suber or having read the Berlin Declaration.
Maybe we should start talking to these people.