Distributive justice and open access

Some of the more powerful ethics-based justifications for open access continue to be ones based on the concept of “distributive justice”. These justifications can also be regarded as ones based on concepts of “fairness”, or “equitable-access”. An eloquent example of a justification of this kind was provided by Jean-Claude Guédon, in a presentation to the May 2001 meeting of The Association of Research Libraries, entitled: “In Oldenburg’s Long Shadow: Librarians, Research Scientists, Publishers, and the Control of Scientific Publishing“, http://www.arl.org/arl/proceedings/138/guedon.html. He wrote:

Librarians can (and ought to) help create a navigable, worldwide ocean of knowledge, open to all; and, like Odysseus, they will know how to help negotiate the tricky ebbs and eddies, the vortices and the undertows of chaotic knowledge flows that necessarily accompany the development of a distributed intelligence civilization – a civilization open to all that are good enough (excellence), and not only to those who can afford it (elites).

There’s a good concise summary of ethics-oriented liberal theories of justice in a wiki-based commentary on Chapter 9, “Justice and Development“, of Yochai Benkler’s influential book, “The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom“. The works of John Rawls, Robert Nozick, Ronald Dworkin and Bruce Ackerman are noted.

Justifications based on concepts of distributive justice are especially relevant in relation to access to health-related information. An example has been provided by an article entitled “Equitable access to scientific and technical information for health“, in the Bulletin of the World Health Organization 2003(Oct); 81(10), by Hooman Momen (Editor, Bulletin of the WHO). This article is accessible via the website of the Scientific Electronic Library Online (SciELO).

An excerpt:

Health is perhaps the area of most intense demand for greater access to scientific and technical information, partly because failure to obtain it can be literally fatal.

Thus, the “global health” justification for open access is based on the “distributive justice” justification. An eloquent summary, by Barbara Kirsop, of the “global health” justification for open access is included in a message that she sent to the American Scientist Open Access Forum on 2 January 2004, on the subject “Re: Free Access vs. Open Access“.


Scientists (and patients with malaria) in the developing world need the information now, asap, in any format that can best be provided, don’t wait til everything is perfect, just do it. And science in the developed world equally needs the highly relevant research from the developing regions now – though it mostly doesn’t recognise this knowledge gap.

Leslie Chan and Sely Costa pointed out, also in 2004, that opportunities for knowledge workers in developing countries to have access to scholarly and scientific publications is important “particularly in areas of medicine, agricultural and environmental sciences“. See: “Participation in the global knowledge commons: challenges and opportunities for research dissemination in developing countries“, http://eprints.rclis.org/archive/00002611/

Charles W. Bailey, Jr. maintains a bibliography of “Open Access Arrangements for Developing Countries“.


1 Comment »

  1. tillje said

    There’s an interview with Yochai Benkler, by Joel Turnipseed, November 2, 2007, at the kottke.org site (edited by Jason Kottke).

    See also the Archive for the ‘Benkler seminar’ Category, Crooked Timber blog, with a Response by Yochai Benkler, dated May 30, 2006.

    Also of interest: Ubuntu software – does it have a place in medicine?, by Dean Giustini, Open Medicine Blog, November 10, 2007. Excerpt:

    This larger sense of community and shared humanity is what uniquely defines Ubuntu.

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