Linkage of OA to larger causes

In Trends favoring open access (SPARC Open Access Newsletter, issue #109, 2 May 2007), Peter Suber noted that: “While it’s clear that OA is here to stay, it’s just as clear that long-term success is a long-term project“. He also commented that: “Nobody is surprised when cultural inertia slows the adoption of radical ideas. But cultural inertia slowed the adoption of OA by leading many people to mistake it for a more radical idea than it actually is“.

In this OA Newsletter item, Peter also outlined a number (I counted 26) of trends that are favorable to OA. I’ll add another trend that I didn’t see mentioned explicitly in Peter’s list: the increasing likelihood of linkages between OA and larger issues, such as climate change. An example of such a linkage is provided in Speaking Out on Global Warming, by Jeremy Elton Jacquot, Los Angeles, 26 May 2007. Excerpts:

In a fascinating article published in the open access journal Environmental Research Letters, James Hansen of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York argues that widespread “scientific reticence” poses a threat to the future well-being of the planet by hindering a necessary conversation between scientists and the public over potentially large sea level rises. He points out that any delay in the discussion carries tremendous risk as system inertias could precipitate a situation in which future sea level changes careen out of control.

In laying out his case against scientific reticence, Hansen cites numerous studies that sought to examine this “resistance to scientists to scientific discovery” and this tendency to “delay discount” out of concern for being the one to erroneously “cry wolf.” In essence, as do most individuals, scientists prefer immediate over delayed gratification, a practice that Hansen believes “may contribute to irrational reticence even among rational scientists” (for full list of cited references, see original article here [J E Hansen, Environ. Res. Lett. 2007(Apr-Jun); 2(2)]).

The lack of more than a passive interest in OA by many scientists has also been a major reason for the delays in the acceptance of OA in several fields of science (with the notable exception of fields covered by the arXiv repository). As Peter Suber noted in Nature debate, 10 June 2004, “…the single largest obstacle to OA is author inertia or omission“. Why is there such inertia? I’ll not try to identify all of the probable reasons here, but will focus on one that was identified by James Hansen (see above): a preference for immediate over delayed rewards. Publication in a high-profile journal, whether it’s OA or not, provides immediate gratification for scientists, in their role as authors.

And, short-term gratification for scientists in their role as readers has been, for many years, provided by libraries. The form of this gratification has shifted in recent years from provision of access to “atoms-based” (printed) publications to provision of even more convenient access to “bits-based” (digital) publications. A consequence of this shift is that the role of libraries has become increasingly invisible to scientists. As Dorothea Salo has recently pointed out, in Disciplinary culture, libraries, and IRs, Caveat Lector, 17 May 2007:

The natural constituency of institutional repositories as they are generally envisioned is the STM world–scientific, technical, medical. That’s where the serials crisis is most acute. That’s where funders are starting to mandate open access to research results and the underlying data used to generate them. That’s where the digital revolution in scholarly communication has made the most progress. That’s also the group least invested in academic libraries, especially in their traditional image as The Book Barn. (Library branders take note! The “Book Barn” brand, I would argue, is actively harmful among this population.)

E-journals and article databases are a transparent service to these researchers; surveys have shown that because the access technology is the same–that is, the web browser–they simply cannot distinguish between a resource on the free web and a resource that their libraries have paid dearly for.

Because of the lack by many scientists of much more than a passive interest in OA, I’ll argue that the linkage of OA to larger issues may be an increasingly important determinant of a wider acceptance of OA. Of course, linkage of OA to the issue of access to health-related information has been happening for several years, and has led to some important initiatives, including the OA mandates adopted by an increasing number of health-related funding agencies, such as the Wellcome Trust in the UK. As noted by Amanda Schaffer in an article posted on 14 Dec 2004, Open Access: Should scientific articles be available online and free to the public?: “At a time, too, when patients are asked to participate much more actively in health care decision-making, better access to information is crucial“.

Perhaps advocates for OA should begin to think about strategies for fostering linkages between OA and larger causes (while continuing to advocate researcher-oriented strategies, such as institutional and funding agency-based OA mandates)? One example: social bookmarking sites, such as Connotea, may be used to tag information that’s relevant both to OA and to other issues. As of today (27 May 2007), 1142 Connotea bookmarks carry the tag “open access“. And, 131 Connotea bookmarks carry the tag “global warming“. However, at present, only one bookmark carries both tags. It’s to the article Speaking Out on Global Warming (see above). In fact, I put it there today.

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