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Phil Richerme | CERN | Switzerland

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Open Access to Scientific Knowledge

Lawrence Lessig, Harvard Law professor and champion of the free culture movement, came to CERN last week to talk about the architecture of access to scientific knowledge. Lessig transformed the relatively mundane subject of copyright law into one of the most engaging and cogent presentations I have seen, while raising some truly valuable points of interest to the scientific community.

Lawrence Lessig

At issue is the inherent incompatibility of copyright law and open access to published research. Under the current system, many individuals – especially those not associated with a university – face a surprisingly high burden to access articles. Some journals make it impossible, and restrict access to U.S. and major world universities willing or able to cover the subscription costs; others will make articles available for typically $30 a pop, which can add up rather quickly. Given that researchers don’t benefit from paywalls (they don’t receive royalties) or restricted access (universal spread of ideas is a good thing for science), Lessig makes the case that publishing in open-access journals should be the preferable choice. One could further make the case that since the majority of scientific research is publicly funded, the results of such research should be easily available to the public.

So why hasn’t everyone already made the switch to open access journals? Two large reasons come to mind. First, there is incredible inertia in academic fields to maintain tradition (in Lessig’s words, academia is “fad-resistant”). To expect the academy to suddenly switch to a new set of journals on account of philosophy, especially if it is a switch away from the more prestigious journals, is unrealistic. It will take time for open-access journals to build prestige and prove themselves steadfast and stable. Second, academics are largely unaffected by the problems mentioned above – most often, they belong to universities with subscription agreements to journals and do not personally bear the costs or difficulties of access. As a result, there is little access-related or economic incentive for change.

It is likely that the response to the problem of open-access will be driven forward at the highest institutional levels. As a Harvard grad student working at CERN, I find it particularly praiseworthy that both of these institutions have been pioneers in the open-access publishing movement. Since 2005, CERN’s publication policy requires its researchers to deposit a copy of all their published articles in an open access repository, and encourages publication in open access journals. Similarly at Harvard, authors grant to the university a “non-exclusive, irrevocable, worldwide license to distribute their scholarly articles, provided it is for non-commercial uses.” Of course comparable practices have been adopted by many other universities, and will almost certainly percolate throughout all of academia in the next few years. I think this can only be a good thing for us as scientists, for science as a whole, and probably even for the general public.

And finally, in the spirit of true open-access, CERN has made Prof. Lessig’s talk freely available here.

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