They can burn books, destroy libraries, forbid languages, ban beliefs, delete past times,
draw new present times, order future actions, torture and execute people...
But they still don´t know how to kill the intangible and bright
bodies of ideas, dreams and hopes.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Scientific knowledge and Open Access

Scientific knowledge and Open Access

By Edgardo Civallero

During next August (10th-12th), Buenos Aires will be the spot where the MERCOSUR XIII Research Meeting and the II Meeting of Researchers on Psychology will take place (for those who are not familiar with South American socio-economic structures, MERCOSUR is an economic community composed by Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay and Venezuela).

During these professional meetings, the BVS-ULAPSI (Health Virtual Library of the Latin American Union of Psychology Organizations) will be presented. This virtual library is an Open Access Archive, based on the work-model carried out for years by the Brazilian ReBAP (Brazilian Psychology Libraries Network).

To build the entire BVS-ULAPSI, each Latin American country should create first its own national Psychology virtual library, following the Brazilian example. It's expected that next month Argentina will join this interesting proposal. I guess that Argentinean librarians specialized in Psychology will find this idea really exciting... and that my country will soon participate in an active way in this really special network.

Well, this news leads me to think a little bit about Open Access initiatives and their relationship with current knowledge management.

The Open Access movement is an international effort aimed at warranting the free access to updated information, specially the scientific one. According to this idea, every member of our society –everyone– should be able to freely access every cultural and scientific advance.

OA wants knowledge to be free. This goal could be achieved following two strategies: Open Archives / Virtual Libraries (storing documents sent by their authors, and liberating them on–line) and OA Journals (published freely online). A good example of the first strategy is Act Academic; the latter one could be represented by the journals included in DOAJ (Directory of Open Access Journals).

I guess you already know that most of the scientific knowledge (strategic information extremely necessary for the cultural and socio-economic development of our world) is used in a commercial way. I mean, it's sold and it's bought.

I guess you have also cursed –like me– against the ridiculously high prices of full-text papers published and managed by some editorials. A Latin American librarian's wage is not enough for buying 10 of them belonging to really important journals.

I guess you have also smiled –like me– when you checked the titles of the journals included in the free-fulltext databases, including every kind of publication but never the important ones, the necessary ones, the ones who carry the most valuable information.

I guess you have also participated –like me– in collaborative professional networks sharing information resources, exchanging articles and asking for help. We have tons of them in Latin America: "I have this and this journal, do you have that and that one? I need them urgently". Yes, I know you also know about this. And if you don't, you should: it feels terrible to know that you're in "this" side of the "Big Divide", that you're poor and that your institution cannot afford the journals your readers need for their work or for their education.

And I guess you know about all the hackers breaking the security codes of the great knowledge sellers and liberating for everybody their well-protected contents, like modern Robin Hoods. I admire them, even if I do know that it's "illegal". But, in this side of the "Big Wall", I daily witness a lot of things that should be declared illegal... but believe me, nobody do anything about it. So I don't worry at all about these so-called "illegal" facts. I do worry when I learn that there's people filling their saving accounts by selling knowledge, keeping away from this information everybody who cannot afford it, even if they need it desperately. I know that nobody freaks out about this fact (even the ones who right know are screaming, reading my words). So, allow me to say that I admire those guys, destroying passwords and spreading full-text papers everywhere. Yes, I admire them because, somehow, they're making a poetical justice.

I know: you'll tell me that there're a lot of libraries in "developed countries" that share their resources in a very kind and solidary way. That's perfect. But this sounds pretty much like charity. And world doesn't need charity anymore. Neither do we. We need fair play. Information for everybody, in equal terms. Free information. Equal opportunities.

Maybe you don't agree with my position. And I don't expect you to do that. I just want you to understand that, after years of receiving charity, I am just claiming for what I deserve.

Maybe you think that these scientists who publish in expensive journals earn a good money with it. You're really wrong: they don't get a cent. Even if there're exceptions, scientists publish their work in order to spread their knowledge, in order to make it useful for humankind. Even if it sounds utopian, I'm glad to say –because I was a biologist once, before becoming a librarian– that this is the basis of Science: research outcomes must be spread, in order to become useful knowledge. If they're not spread, they are not useful, and producing them is just a waste of time.

Publishers know this. Publishers also know that people need this information, because it's strategical for progress, for development, for social and technical improvement, for health. So, editorial business was born. A good business, isn't it?

But development, health, welfare shouldn't be a matter of business. To believe this is unfair. Actually, it's really nasty.

Authors research and write their valuable results in papers which they send to upstanding journals for being published. Yes, authors need visibility, they need to have a good CV, they need to be recognized, because it they don't publish papers in high-ranking journals they don't get funding, they don't get economic support. So, they publish. And the editors just put their words on a paper (I know, it's not so simple, I worked half of my life in the editorial business) and sell it.

If you can afford the price of the journal, God bless you. Be happy, learn a lot, study, improve your life and the life of your neighbors. If you cannot afford it... what a pity!

What happened? Authors noticed that, by using this method, they were losing visibility: since journals couldn't be bought by everybody, the readers' universe narrowed in a dramatic way. And they realized that, even if they wanted a bright CV, they also wanted their knowledge to be useful, to be read, to be criticized and improved by their peers all around the world. And, when Internet became a widespread phenomenon, they understood that they didn't need big publishers anymore: they could publish their articles in their own web pages, or in collective sites (archives). They could show their pre-prints, make them available for everybody before publishing them in journals and getting their good CV.

Hence, the OA movement was born. The rest of the process is a part of OA history, and it can be checked in Wikipedia alongside with a ton of links about declarations, experiences, ideas, proposals and so on. The movement became a real philosophy, an anarchist idea, a human and solidary proposal based in a single, lovely sentence: "knowledge must be free".

And I love this kind of anarchist ideas, because they always put human beings and their needs first. And this is what we need in a world damaged by the power of money.

Through OA, equality of opportunities in the access to information can be warranted. And equality of opportunities is a basic human right. By this way, OA is also supporting a lot of other rights: growth, development, social improvement, problems solution, qualified education, updated information...

Sometimes OA even warrants freedom of expression, for many OA archives provide a space for those authors censored by dominant ideologies ― those ideologies which decide which works can be published and which voices must be silenced.

OA is aimed at stopping the commerce of a non-profit good that was created in order to provide common welfare. OA is aimed at encouraging an intelligent and solidary use of information and new technologies. OA is aimed at deleting chains and restrictions.

And OA is aimed at teaching how to use copyright in a reasonable, smart way.

A lot of little and big editorials have understood this fact and joined the movement. That's really good news. The bad news is that the most important ones are still reluctant to give up their business. So, right know, OA-workers are designing new strategies for achieving a slow transition from the current paradigm to an OA-based one.

OA is in the arena of international debates, and it's included in the agendas of every important LIS meeting. I'm sure that it'll become our future work model. I really believe in the philosophy undergoing OA movement. And I spread these ideas, and I teach them wherever I go, and I work with them, and I collaborate with several OA proposals... And I do it because every day I see Argentinean students (our future professionals) without possibilities for buying books and journals, studying with 10-years-too-old books and papers. And I realize that by this way the health, the education and the progress of my country (and my whole continent) is vanishing. In these moments, I feel again that I am in "this" side of the "Big Divide". In these moments I remember the big libraries from developed countries (visited during my travels) and compare them with our own libraries, and I feel tears of rage in my eyes when I realize the differences ("differences", always "differences"). In these moments I believe in a stronger way in my ideas of freedom and anarchism...

And maybe in these moments I admire the most those hackers who have the courage for breaking –even if illegally– the nasty usernames and passwords set up by the information dealers. Because, with their work –even if maybe they don't know it– they are giving wings to a knowledge that was originally born to fly in freedom.