Saturday, March 25, 2006

Open Access: Transformative Change

An Open Letter to the President and Members of the American Chemical Society

Dear E. Ann Nally, President, ACS:

In a recent e-mail to ACS members, you inquire whether the NIH Public Access Policy is simply change for its own sake, whether it really adds value beyond what it presently available.

As an open access advocate, let me explain. The NIH Public Access Policy is merely one piece in the move towards open access. The potential of open access is not change for the sake of change; it is transformative change, towards an unprecedented public good.

Consider, for example, how through open sharing of information, the world's researchers were able to come together to map the human genome in a mind-bogglingly short time. Why not pursue this approach to solve the puzzle of developing sustainable, environmentally friendly energy resources - or to keep one step ahead of avian flu?

The NIH's Public Access Policy extends the already openly available Medline index in PubMed. It can be argued that open access to Medline has been a key in the move towards evidence-based practice in medicine over the past few years, since this has brought access to medical evidence to practitioners everywhere. This is a whole new approach to medicine, one that brings the latest research to the practitioner, benefiting practitioners and patients alike.

PubMedCentral also makes the research available to the general public, allowing the efforts of our doctors, nurses, and other health professionals to be supplemented by those individuals and family members who care to take advantage of this opportunity. Obviously, not everyone will want to read the research literature, certainly not for a routine, easily corrected medical problem. However, when people are afflicted with a serious illness for which there is no certain treatment, many will want to read the research literature, and this is their right.

Consider, Ann, whether one of your loved ones might someday suffer from terminal, incurable cancer. Could you imagine yourself wanting to comb the literature for any clues to a new approach?

Open access is transformative in another sense - it makes the research literature readily available to a great many more people than at present. As you are no doubt aware, Ann, the whole world cannot afford to purchase the journals of the ACS, not even all the wealthiest universities in the developed world. Many a college professor even in a wealthy country like Canada does not have ready access to the ACS journals. Lack of access is much more acute in the less-developed world.

The greatly expanded access that is open access will open up many, many opportunities. Professional practitioners in northern British Columbia will have the same access that is currently available at the teaching hospitals in Vancouver. More colleges, smaller universities and even high schools, will have ready access to the research literature, making it possible to teach in new ways, to develop an information and science literate populace. In the less-developed world, ready access to resources is one of the keys to developing education programs. Here, it is not just that colleges and universities will have more access; rather, more access will make it possible to develop more college and universities.

More researchers with ready access, both to the research literature and the impactful publishing opportunity that is open access, means more rapid advancement of knowledge.

As a former college professor, Ann, no doubt you are aware that many of your former colleagues enjoy a good deal less access than university professors. With open access, these colleagues will not only have the means to participate in research if desired - they will also be more effective teachers, partially because it will be easier to keep up with new developments, and partly because there will be more resources for students.

Change can be difficult for all of us, and perhaps moreso for the privileged, profitable society publisher. However, as the Budapest Open Access Initiative stated so well, open access makes possible an unprecedented public good:

Removing access barriers to this literature will accelerate research, enrich education, share the learning of the rich with the poor and the poor with the rich, make this literature as useful as it can be, and lay the foundation for uniting humanity in a common intellectual conversation and quest for knowledge.

This kind of transformation is absolutely worth the relatively small and transitory discomforts of change. Ann, I invite you personally, along with every member of the American Chemical Society, not only to fully support the NIH Public Access Policy, but also to go much farther - to engage in the process of transformation, to openly and immediately share not just peer-reviewed postprints, but also preprints, data, conference presentations, and research in progress.

Heather Morrison
The Imaginary Journal of Poetic Economics

This post reflects my personal opinion only and does not represent the opinions or policy of the BC Electronic Library Network or the Simon Fraser University Library.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Thank you for your comment. Comments on IJPE are moderated.