Open Access for the other 85%
One of the things you notice as a visitor from the UK in South Africa is how clean the toilets are. In restaurants, at the University, in public places. Sometimes a bit worn down but always clean. And then you start to notice how clear and clean the pavements are and your first response, well at least my first response, is that this is a sign of things going right. One element of the whole is working well. But of course one of the main reasons for this is that labour is cheap and plentiful.
And suddenly it seemed less positive. The temptation is to offer advice, experience of first world development programs, but it became clear very quickly how little of the context I was aware. The problems on the ground are often not the obvious ones – the solutions rarely easy visible from the privileged perspective of the global north. The thing I learnt was to offer advice that was tactical, not strategic, routes towards the desired goal, not the direction of travel.
So Heather Morrison’s post on the use of Creative Commons for open access, arriving as it did in the middle of my visit to Cape Town, troubled me. Those who read here will know I am a strong partisan of the OA = CC-BY view and indeed tend to the view that we should just place things in the public domain. So my first response was a rejection. But there is an argument in there that non-commercial and share-alike terms are appropriate for the developing world, because they can protect access to the results of text mining of relevant research. These arguments are always worth taking apart because they help to illuminate the practicalities of how we take scholarly communication and make it valuable to people. It helps to pull apart the issues and raise important use cases, and the effective use of research to aid development is a key use case. Heather is also, as someone who has thought deeply about these issues, a person I will always disagree with with caution.
But here I do have to disagree. And I disagree on two levels. I gave a presentation at UCT where I talked in part about some of our open science work and a question was asked “have you thought about how accessible this is in rural Africa”. My lame answer was that we have thought about it and worried about it but not actually done anything. But the better answer for me was that it is far better for the people on the ground who really know the infrastructure, and the need, to decide what is required and do the appropriate format conversion, the printing and distribution than for us in the UK or the US to presume to know what it is of most value. This, after all is the principle of open access, allowing others to re-use as appropriate for their context precisely because we don’t know what those uses may be.
And NC terms will break this in the developing world. Right where that research is needed the communications infrastructure is patchy and in many cases non-existent. Getting that research to people, whether the raw communication, or processed or text mined material can require paper, and trucks to transport. It may require translation in format or in language or in form. All of these things cost money and in choosing NC terms we would be condemning those who could use this material to relying on charity, or which is in some cases worse, governments. A service industry that charges someone, somewhere, for production, translation, and transport is ruled out as a possible business model. Exploitation is a value-laden term, particularly in the context of Africa but in its pure and ideal sense it is neutral. We want to see research exploited for good but in choosing NC terms we are dictating the way that exploitation can occur. The risks of exploitation in the bad sense are also there. But I don’t think licences are the way to deal with it. By using legal instruments we take those key choices out of the hands of those best placed to make them.
And this is the more insidious issue from my perspective. The thing I learned in a week in Cape Town was that the last thing scholars in the developing world need is for us to make decisions for them. What we need to do, as a community, is to ensure that people can make the widest possible range of choices. Don’t get me wrong, using CC-BY has some risks in that regard, and ccZero perhaps some more, but if we act to preserve the principle of giving people the space to make their own decisisons based on local knowledge and local needs, then that is the biggest contribution we can make.
It’s not just licensing. One of the biggest holes in the entire fabric of the OA movement, is the lack of a principled and rational stance on author payment charges. Just patting people on the head and saying “oh don’t worry we won’t make you pay” is not just patronising, it is damaging to our credibility, and damaging to our own progress. One of the other key lessons I learnt from a week listening to people in Cape Town is how far ahead of the traditional centres of scholarship they are on some issues. I spend a lot of time in the UK and the US trying to convince people that there is an issue; that we need to look at how our research matters to the wider community. In South Africa the needs are clear, and scholars want to make a difference. The question is how, and how to tell when it is working. They are damn good at this. We could learn a lot from these people about how to balance the pursuit of prestige and “research with impact” that seems to be such a struggle for us.
We need to think of the global scholarly community, not as made up of “us” and “those who are catching up”, but as made up of different groups with different priorities and different needs, and crucially with different experiences and value to bring to a global endeavour. The creation of a “special OA” for the developing world runs the risk of perpetuating a view in which 85% of the world will always be catching up. Yes we need to try and build systems that ensure access to all scholarship, primary and derived. How to do that is an important debate, and one I hope will be at the centre of the Berlin10 conference to be held in Stellenbosch in South Africa next year. To not use that meeting to address the issues and challenges of business models and safeguards that help preserve access and optimise impact for the developing world would be a terrible loss.
OA is about enabling people, enabling business, and enabling development. There is a global community of scholars who get that, who want to be part of the wider community, and have their own skills and expertise to bring. They also want to share and contribute to the resource needs of scholarly communication in an appropriate and equitable way. We need to enable them to do that and get out of their way. After all, we might learn something.