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At Open-Access Meeting, Advocates Emphasize the Impact of Sharing Knowledge

Bethesda, Md. — Impact, not ideology, was the watchword at the Berlin 9 Open Access Conference, held here on Wednesday and Thursday at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The 260 high-level researchers, fund providers, and open-access advocates who attended didn’t waste time bashing publishers who keep research behind paywalls. (Some commercial publishers, including Elsevier, attended.) Instead they focused on the benefits of putting research—in the humanities and social sciences as well as in the sciences—quickly and freely into the hands of scholars, students, innovators, and the general public.

“One or two people in this room will die in the next five years because of research that didn’t make its way to clinics fast enough,” one presenter, Cameron Neylon, told the crowd. Mr. Neylon, a biophysicist, is a senior scientist at Britain’s Science and Technology Facilities Council. He spoke at a session on how open access can create new opportunities for business as well as for scholarship. “This is not about ideology anymore,” it’s about creating the best, most efficient mechanisms for getting research to those who need it, he said.

“To me this is a design challenge,” said Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University. In an ideal world, knowledge would be as evenly distributed as sunlight, he said, recommending that universities need to be redesigned so they don’t work on exclusivity.

Harold E. Varmus, director of the National Cancer Institute, argued the case for redesigning the system of scholarly publishing and rewards. Even scientists who believe that open access benefits science are often slow to adopt it, “because they have concerns about their careers,” he said. “Those careers are often built on what I consider to be a false standard of publication practices.”

Journal articles remain “the vehicle by which the most important products of science are conveyed to the public,” said Dr. Varmus. But open access creates opportunities to look beyond traditional articles. One way to force the culture of science to change more quickly “is to change the way we evaluate each other,” he argued. But change, he said, isn’t happening fast enough.

The need to rethink the scholarly reward system came up time and again at the meeting. Philip E. Bourne, a professor in the school of of pharmacy at the University of California at San Diego, edits the journal PLoS Computational Biology. “We should be educating the people who are reviewing us about the value of what we’re producing,” he said.

The system has to be reworked so that it assigns credit for activities beyond the writing of articles, such as curating data and creating metadata, Mr. Bourne said. His journal, for instance, encourages contributors to create and edit Wikipedia entries.

Other speakers called on researchers to be stronger advocates for change. Michael Carroll, director of the program on information justice and intellectual property at American University’s law school, told the audience he got involved in open access because “I want copyright law to do its job in society, and I don’t think it’s doing its job.”

Researchers need to take responsibility for making sure their publishing contracts permit open access, he said. ”I think it’s time to get in authors’ faces a little bit and say, When you choose to sign that agreement without amending it, you’re slamming the door on some readers.”

Mark Liberman, director of the Linguistic Data Consortium at the University of Pennsylvania, said it was time to talk frankly about costs and business models. “‘Just put it up on the Net’ is an admirable goal but not usually a valid solution,” he said. He also pointed out new problems raised by open access, such as how to protect privacy while making large amounts of data widely available.

Unlike many discussions of open access, which have focused on the sciences, the Berlin 9 meeting made the humanities and social sciences squarely part of the agenda. The National Endowment for the Humanities contributed some financial support to the meeting.

Among the humanists who spoke at the meeting was Dean Rehberger, director of Matrix, the Center for Humane Arts, Letters, and Social Sciences Online at Michigan State University. Mr. Rehberger gave a lively overview of Matrix’s Quilt Index, an international survey that’s collecting images and descriptions of quilts from all over the world. “The nice thing about computers is they’re relentless,” he said, explaining how technology can help humanists tackle the challenge of how to process and interpret the flood of creativity in all media.

One striking example of how an institution can make changes quickly came from outside academe. In 2010 the World Bank kicked off its Open Data project, opening up much of its financial data. “We’re basically throwing our doors open,” said Cyril Muller, vice president for external affairs.

The bank seeks to put almost all its publications and reports in an Open Knowledge Repository, subject to what he described as a Creative Commons-like attribution license. That’s a big switch for an organization that as recently as 2005 still used print sales as its main research-sharing model. “Our emphasis now is on electronic publishing and leveraging open access,” Mr. Muller said. “It’s actually changing the way we’re doing our work.”

The World Bank example highlighted another of the meeting’s themes: that access to research is a global concern. “America, Europe, and Asia account for roughly equal proportions of scholarly publications in many fields,” said Bernard Schutz, director of the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics, one of the meeting’s organizers. “It is entirely a worldwide issue that we have to address.”

One session picked up the theme of open education and how open access can contribute to it. Laura Czerniewicz, director of the University of Cape Town’s OpenUCT program, spoke about how difficult it is for many South African students to get textbooks and other resources they need to pursue education. Open-education resources are “absolutely critical,” she said, especially in an environment where many students can access the Internet only via cellphones.

The open-access publisher InTech sponsored the meeting, which was organized by the Hughes Institute; the Association of Research Libraries; the Marine Biological Laboratory, in Woods Hole, Mass.; the Planck Institute; and the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, or Sparc, which promotes open access. The Institute of Museum and Library Services as well as the NEH also provided support.

This year marks the first time the gathering has been held in North America. The conference dates to October 2003, when the Max Planck Society and the European Cultural Heritage Online project sponsored a meeting that produced an open-access manifesto known as the Berlin Declaration. Drawing on what’s known as the Budapest Open Access Initiative, it “calls for the results of research produced by authors without expectation of payment to be made widely available on the Internet, and to carry permissions necessary for users to use and reuse results in a way that accelerates the pace of scholarship and research.” Some 330 institutions worldwide have now signed it.

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