Let All Knowledge Be Free That Wants to be Free

Stevan Harnad
Canada Research Chair in Cognitive Sciences
Universite du Québec à Montréal

Some well-meaning cowboys have noticed a similarity between the World-Wide-Web and the Wild-Wild-West, with its limitless space, free for the taking. They've concluded that the Web Age means we can at last have free access to all knowledge.

I wish they had been right, but unfortunately knowledge is produced by people, and not all people want to give away their work for free!

The authors of most books, for example, are quite aware that the Web is a medium in which texts can be made accessible to anyone who clicks on them, but they'd rather their readers paid for access. Same is true for singers and song-writers, and for most writers of computer software. Human nature being what it is -- and the demands of daily survival being what they are -- most people would prefer to be paid for their work, regardless of whether their product is physical goods and services or abstract knowledge. If I cannot be paid for it, why bother to do the work at all?

But there is one prominent exception. University reseachers are paid to *do* research, but they publish it (in research journals) for free. Unlike all other authors, they don't ask for any fee or royalty for these writings.


Because in publishing them they are not looking for sales revenue but for "research impact." How many users read, apply, use, build-upon and cite my research? Those are the numbers on which the researcher's career and research-funding depend.

So what's the problem then? This knowledge was give-away knowledge already in the paper era. Now that we have the Web, we can give it all away big-time!

Not so fast!

I said the researchers give it away, but that doesn't mean its users don't have to pay! For the only way to get access -- either on paper or online -- to the contents of the 24,000 research journals in which 2.5 million research articles appear yearly every year is for the would-be user's university to pay for access. And the fact is that the access-tolls are so high that universities can afford access only to a small and shrinking fraction of them. That means that the world's research output is inaccessible to most of its would-be users, despite the fact that it is and always has been an author give-away!

This represents a great loss to research, researchers, their institutions, their research funders, and the tax-payers who are paying for it all. It has been estimated that articles that are accessible toll-free on the Web have 336% more research impact than those that are only available via toll-access. (336% may not seem like a large increase, but considering that most research is not cited at all, this figure is actually astronomical.)

Why are there still access-blocking tolls, then? So that journals can continuing making ends meet. Why do we still need journals at all, if access can be provided for free on the Web? Because journals provide "peer review," which ensures that the research is reliable and correct.

The peers who review and certify the articles are qualified experts in the article's field, but they too, like the authors, seek no payment for their work! So the only cost involved is *implementing* the peer review: A qualified editor has to pick the reviewers, the journal has to track the reviewing process, and then the editor has to make sure the author does any recommended revisions. We know what implementing all of that costs: about $500 per paper.

But what is the planet -- or rather, those few universities on the planet that can afford access to any given journal -- actually paying in access tolls for the very limited access it gets in return? About $1500 per article on average.

Why so much more than $500? Because those costs include the production and distribution of the paper version, as well as some values added to the online version (mark-up, PDF paper images, etc.).

Because of this arithmetic, a number of new journals have been created in recent years that do not try to recover their costs by charging access-blocking tolls to the reader-institution, but through a per-article publication charge to the author-institution.

About 1000 such "open-access" journals exist today. That's enough to provide open access to less than 5% of the planet's yearly research output. What about the other 95%?

The solution is simple, and it is very much in the spirit of the Wild-Web! All articles for which there is not yet a suitable open-access journal should be published, as before, in a suitable toll-access journal, but, in addition, they should be "self-archived" by their authors on their own university websites.

That way, all those would-be users whose universities cannot afford to access the deluxe version from the publisher can access the author's give-away vanilla version (and thus no research impact is lost)

Journals are not yet ready to risk making the transition to open-access publishing, but 55% of them already officially support author self-archiving. And many of the rest will agree if asked, because no publisher wants to be seen as blocking the research impact of the knowledge that their authors are freely giving them and their peer-reviewers are freely reviewing for them.

It is now up to research institutions and funders to extend their "Publish or Perish" policies to "Provide Open Access to Your Publications" so as to maximize the benefits of this give-away knowledge to the tax-paying society that funded it.

For details about the worldwide open access movement, see:

American Scientist Forum: http://amsci-forum.amsci.org/archives/American-Scientist-Open-Access-Forum.html

Budapest Open Access Initiative http://www.soros.org/openaccess/

Berlin Declaration: http://www.zim.mpg.de/openaccess-berlin/berlindeclaration.html

Self-Archiving FAQ: http://www.eprints.org/self-faq/

Bethesda Statement http://www.earlham.edu/~peters/fos/bethesda.htm

Public Access to Science Act (Sabo Bill, H.R. 2613) http://www.ecs.soton.ac.uk/~harnad/Hypermail/Amsci/2977.html

Public Library of Science http://www.publiclibraryofscience.org/