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Sparks of Wisdom from the SPARC Open Access Meeting

Although the SPARC Open Access Meeting concluded several days ago, I find myself still processing the information that was shared by the slate of wonderful speakers. I finally took the time to review my scribblings and found that there were a few takeaways worth sharing and expounding upon.

John Wilbanks (bioinformatics entrepreneur, former VP at Creative Commons, and current senior fellow working on open data for the Kauffman Foundation) gave the keynote address. During his enlightening and engaging speech, he enumerated three uncomfortable truths that we must face as we proceed in the quest for open access to knowledge. The 1st uncomfortable truth is that we currently exist in a Veruca Salt generation — consumers want information now, they don’t care how. They want to be able to access their music, their e-books, their personal data files, etc. on a variety of devices in a variety of places. Scholars are no different than members of the general public in their demand for anytime and anywhere access.  The 2nd uncomfortable truth is that data publication is not the answer.  There are many unanswered questions about when to publish data, where to publish data, etc. And there is the larger issue of who will perform the work; there is a global shortage of data managers to perform the tasks necessary to preserve and publish the data.  The 3rd uncomfortable truth is that the Research Works Act is not the worst threat to be seen against open access.  The attacks will continue in even more subtle forms — it may be legislation buried in more omnibus bills or it may be through misleading claims about a publication’s open access status.

Neil Thakur of the National Institutes of Health provided me with the next takeaway of note.  Thakur, speaking about the NIH Public Access Policy, explained why the NIH policy is not open access and should not be confused as such. He noted that the NIH policy relies upon the current copyright framework, primarily the limits of fair use, to achieve its goals. He also explained that public access policies are not the answer to the serials crisis. It does not reduce costs (and further, does not hurt the publishers’ bottom lines) or obviate the need for subscriptions. But the most important point Thakur made was about the greatest challenge posed by the NIH policy. Although the NIH policy opens the doors to thousands of pages of research, such access is not beneficial if researchers or the public are not reading the “right” papers.  We need to be doing more through machine access and analysis to connect people with the papers that are most beneficial for to their research.

A final speaker of note was Caroline Sutton, president of the Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association. Speaking about the importance of open access publishing, Sutton noted that open access is a key support for innovation and competitiveness in the greater economy; the real value of open access is value creation and innovation, not the freedom from cost. In the rhetoric that often accompanies open access promotion, the real value of barrier-free knowledge is often overlooked.

For more on the SPARC Open Access Meeting, please visit the SPARC website for author bios and slides.

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