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On the 10th Anniversary of the Budapest Declaration

14 February 2012 6 Comments

Budapest: Image from Wikipedia, by Christian Mehlführer

Ten years ago today, the Budapest Declaration was published. The declaration was the output of a meeting held some months earlier, largely through the efforts of Melissa Hagemann, that brought together key players from the, then nascent, Open Access movement. BioMedCentral had been publishing for a year or so, PLoS existed as an open letter, Creative Commons was still focussed on building a commons and hadn’t yet released its first licences. The dotcom bubble had burst, deflating many of the exuberant expectations of the first generation of web technologies and it was to be another year before Tim O’Reilly popularised the term “Web 2.0” arguably marking the real emergence of the social web.

In that context the text of the declaration is strikingly prescient. It focusses largely on the public good of access to research, a strong strand of the OA argument that remains highly relevant today.

“An old tradition and a new technology have converged to make possible an unprecedented public good. The old tradition is the willingness of scientists and scholars to publish the fruits of their research in scholarly journals without payment, for the sake of inquiry and knowledge. The new technology is the internet. The public good they make possible is the world-wide electronic distribution of the peer-reviewed journal literature and completely free and unrestricted access to it by all scientists, scholars, teachers, students, and other curious minds. 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.”

But at the same time, and again remember this is at the very beginning of the development of the user-generated web, the argument is laid out to support a networked research and discovery environment.

“…many different initiatives have shown that open access […] gives readers extraordinary power to find and make use of relevant literature, and that it gives authors and their works vast and measurable new visibilityreadership, and impact.”

But for me, the core of the declaration lies in its definition. At one level it seems remarkable to have felt a need to define Open Access, and yet this is something we still struggle with this today. The definition in the Budapest Declaration is clear, direct, and precise:

“By ‘open access’ to this literature, we mean its free availability on the public internet, permitting any users to read, download, copy, distribute, print, search, or link to the full texts of these articles, crawl them for indexing, pass them as data to software, or use them for any other lawful purpose, without financial, legal, or technical barriers other than those inseparable from gaining access to the internet itself. The only constraint on reproduction and distribution, and the only role for copyright in this domain, should be to give authors control over the integrity of their work and the right to be properly acknowledged and cited.”

Core to this definition are three things. Access to the text, understood as necessary to achieve the other aims; a limitation on restrictions and a limitation on the use of copyright to only support the integrity and attribution of the work – which I interpret in retrospect to mean the only acceptable licences are those that require attribution only. But the core forward looking element lies in the middle of the definition, focussing as it does on specific uses; crawling, passing to software as data, that would have seemed outlandish, if not incomprehensible, to most researchers at the time.

In limiting the scope of acceptable restrictions and in focussing on the power of automated systems, the authors of the Budapest declaration recognised precisely the requirements of information resources that we have more recently come to understand as requirements for effective networked information. Ten years ago, before Facebook existed, let alone before anyone was talking about frictionless sharing – the core characteristics were identified that would enable research outputs to be accessed and read, but above all integrated, mined, aggregated and used in ways that their creators did not, could not, expect. The core characteristics of networked information that enable research outputs to become research outcomes. The characteristics that will maximise the impact of that research.

I am writing this in a hotel room in Budapest. I am honoured to have been invited to attend a meeting to mark the 10th anniversary of the declaration and excited to be discussing what we have learnt over the past ten years and how we can navigate the next ten. The declaration itself remains as clear and relevant today as it was ten years ago. Its core message is one of enabling the use and re-use of research to make a difference. Its prescience in identifying exactly those issues that best support that aim in a networked world is remarkable.

In looking both backwards, over the achievements of the past ten years, and forwards, towards the challenges and opportunities that await us when true Open Access is achieved, the Budapest Declaration is, for me, the core set of principles that can guide us along the path to realising the potential of the web for supporting research and its wider place in society.

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