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.
It took me a bit longer to put these up, but here are the slides and video clip for my presentation in Osnabrück last week (in German). I was invited to speak at the ZePrOS (Center for Graduate Studies) at the University of Osnabrück on effective ways of communicating one’s research online. Alex Bergs gave a very flattering introduction after which I went on a long but practically-oriented rant on scholarly communication in the digital age. My audience was very patient and gave me some great questions to ponder.
I was grateful for the opportunity to present on this subject for several reasons. Firstly, I believe that a topic such as Open Access is best approached holistically, i.e. by taking on the researcher’s perspective. It makes much more sense in my opinion to embed a discussion of Open Access into the larger picture of communicating research results openly on the Web, instead of treating it as an isolated issue that is primarily about making publishing cheaper.
Another reason is that graduate education tends to neglect what are perceived as ‘peripheral’ issues, such as where/how to publish, the inner workings of the academic job market and why visibility (not just inside your own discipline) is important. We need to promote digital literacy among grad students, in the sense of teaching
- new methods, tools and infrastructure for doing research (e-science, e-social-science, e-humanities),
- new ways of presenting and making accessible one’s research (Open Access, self-archiving),
- new ways of communicating with colleagues and working collaboratively (tagging/bibliography-sharing, collaborative writing) and
- new approaches to teaching and learning (using video lectures, creating digital learning materials).
My impression is that the best way to achieve something like digital scholarly literacy is to take an integrative approach to these issues. E-science, virtual research environments, e-learning and social media tools for collaboration are hardly ever discussed in concert, but often treated as separate topics. While this may appear to be a more focused way of looking at things (especially if you’re a librarian, funding agency etc), all of these themes are connected in the daily lives of scholars. Cameron Neylon’s points on innovation in science blogging (“The natural unit of science research is the blog post”) go hand in hand in my view with Michael Habib’s observations on digital scholarly identity and a discussion of e-learning and e-teaching could easily be attached to this.
All of these things are part of digital scholarship as an integrated process – as opposed to analog scholarship with a few digital bits here and there.
Below are my OAW09 slides for last week’s presentation, held at the University of Cologne. We were a small but enthusiastic band of Open Access supporters and I greatly enjoyed the presentations, especially the one on ArcheoInf, which is a very impressive digital humanities/open data project in archeology.
Der Misserfolg der Medientheorie, die geglaubt hat, mit der Exegese von ein paar Aufsätzen Walter Benjamins und der Wiederholung einiger ungedeckter Thesen Michel Foucaults schon etwas Tragfähiges zu den gegenwärtigen medialen Transformationen zu sagen, hat etwa auf der Seite der Geisteswissenschaften dazu beigetragen, dass ihr zu ihren eigenen realen Arbeitsumwelten nicht viel einfällt. Die Verlage haben zu lange darauf gesetzt, die bestehenden Publikationswege als die allein sinnvollen zu verteidigen. Die Wissenschaftsorganisationen neigen dazu, die Unterschiede der Fächerkulturen einzuebnen. Wir alle werden dabei von Google und Co. überholt. Andere Prozesse wie die weltweite Konkurrenz der Wissenschaftsstandorte oder die Metrisierung der Wissenschaften beschleunigen diesen Prozess. Wir stehen hier am Anfang einer Entwicklung, die keiner von uns überblicken kann.
I am proud to announce that my dissertation The corporate blog as an emerging genre of computer-mediated communication: features, constraints, discourse situation will be published with Universitätsverlag Göttingen in the series Göttinger Schriften zur Internetforschung (Göttingen publications on Internet Research). The series is edited by Svenja Hagenhoff, Dieter Hogrefe, Elmar Mittler, Matthias Schumann, Gerald Spindler and Volker Wittke and has thus far featured five works investigating different aspects of medial change brought about by the Internet and digital technology, such as individualization in the media and new forms of academic communication on the Net. I am proud to be the first linguist to publish in this interdisciplinary series and it is also extremely gratifying to see my thesis published with a university press that has a modern approach to scholarly communication. All works published in the series are hybrid Open Access and print on demand publications, in other words, you can either choose to read them online (or download them to your computer), or to order the traditional dead tree version. Different channels of distribution are also supported, i.e. my dissertation will be on Google Books and Amazon.
I’d like to thank the editors and especially Svenja Hagenhoff for taking the time to consider my thesis for inclusion and Margo Bargheer for pointing the series out to me.