Open Access and the Public Domain

By Ashling, Jim | Information Today, May 2003 | Go to article overview

Open Access and the Public Domain


Ashling, Jim, Information Today


There has recently been a flurry of conferences that address new models for the dissemination of scientific research-particularly those that involve open access. Participants appear to be either entrenched with those who wish to preserve the status quo or with those gathered around revolutionary flags calling for information to be free. However, one group of international organizations has attempted to debate the matter through a series of meetings and position papers. Its mission is to find a more cooperative solution to science publishing issues.

A truly international conference representing many shades of opinion was held March 10-11 at the Paris headquarters of UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization). In conjunction with UNESCO, the meeting was sponsored by ICSU (International Council for Science), the U.S. National Academies, CODATA (Committee on Data for Science and Technology), and ICSTI (International Council for Scientific and Technical Information).

The "International Symposium on Open Access and the Public Domain in Digital Data and Information for Science" brought together representatives from the government 'and academic sectors of both developing and developed countries. They discussed the legal, economic, and technical aspects of digital data 'and information distribution. In addition, the attendees sought to identify the issues that will form part of an Action Plan. This project will be produced by ICSU and 'UNESCO in preparation for the World Summit 'on the Information Society (WSIS), to be held Dec. 10-12 in Geneva (http://www.itu.int/wsis).

The UNESCO symposium followed Open Access to STI: State of the Art and Future Trends, which was held Jan. 23-24. That meeting, organized by ICSTI, INSERM (Institut National Sante et de la Recherche Medicale) and INIST (Institut de l'Information Scientifique et Technique), covered issues from the point of view of authors, publishers, and users.

What are some of the issues at the heart of this debate? They are many and familiar, of course. The following 'are a few that are likely to get any group of scientists, librarians, or publishers shouting at each other:

* Should publicly funded research results be disseminated free of charge?

* Who should pay for information dissemination: the research funding body, the scientist/author, libraries, or the reader?

* Who needs publishers anyway, since anyone can publish on the Web?

* How can developing' nations gain affordable access 'to the literature of the rich "North" (developed countries) and get recognition for their own research programs?

* How can anyone trust published material without peer review?

Opening Speakers

In his introductory remarks, conference chair M. G. K. Menon (from Leadership for Environment and Development--India) noted that speakers were asked to focus their comments on publicly funded research and databases. Because of the interdisciplinary nature of research today, he said scientists now depend on the 'availability of data from the broadest possible range of disciplines. Any access' restrictions merely impede scientific progress, especially in developing, nations.

In his keynote address, David Dickson of Science and Development Network (SciDev.Net) said that the development of government scientific policy used' to be a simple linear process, with administrations consulting the scientific community and then making policy decisions. Today, he said, input is sought from a wide network of bodies, including religious, social, and other public interest groups. This was caused by the democratization of the Internet and public interest in topical scientific issues such as cloning, genetically modified crops, and global warming.

An unfortunate consequence of this government policy has been increased political spin on scientific topics, which has contributed to public mistrust of science and scientists.

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