Some well-meaning cowboys have noticed a similarity between the World Wide Web and the Wild Wild West, with its limitless space They've concluded that the Web Age means we can at last have free access to all knowledge.
I wish they were 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, but they'd rather their readers paid for access. Most singers and songwriters feel the same way. Most people, in fact, would prefer to be paid for their work
But there's one prominent exception. Researchers 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.
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 giveaway knowledge already in the paper era. Now that we have the Web, we can give it 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 worldwide is for the would-be user's institution to pay for access. And the access tolls are so high that institutions can afford access only to a small and shrinking fraction of such sites. That means that the world's research output is inaccessible to most potential users, in spite of 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 taxpayers who are paying for it all. It has been estimated that articles that are accessible toll-free on the Web have 4 1/2 times the research impact of those that are available only via toll-access.
Why are there still access-blocking tolls? So that journals can continue 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 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 institutions that can afford access to any given journal - actually paying in access tolls for the limited access it gets in return? About $1,500 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 through access-blocking tolls to the user institution, but through a per-article publication charge to the author institution.
About 1000 ''open-access'' journals exist today. That's enough to provide open access to less than five per cent of the planet's yearly research output. What about the other 95 per cent?
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 always, in a suitable toll-access journal, but, in addition, they should be "self-archived" by their authors on their own institutional Web sites.
That way, all those would-be users whose institutions cannot afford access to the deluxe version from the publisher can get the author's giveaway plain-vanilla version (and so no research impact is lost).
Journals are not ready to risk making the transition to open-access publishing, but 55 per cent 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" to maximize the benefits of this knowledge to the tax-paying society that pays for it.
For details about the worldwide open access movement, see:
The American Scientist Forum: http://amsci-forum.amsci.org/archives/American-Scientist-Open-Access-Forum.html
The Budapest Open Access Initiative: www.soros.org/openaccess/
The Berlin Declaration: www.zim.mpg.de/openaccess-berlin/berlindeclaration.html
The Self-Archiving FAQ: www.eprints.org/self-faq/
Stevan Harnad holds the Canada Research Chair in Cognitive Sciences at the Universite du Quebec a Montreal.