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Stefan Decker: Open Access Requires a Change in Habit

18 November 2013

Stefan Decker MRIA is a professor at the National University of Ireland and the director of the Digital Enterprise Research Institute (DERI) in Galway. His current research interests include the Semantic Web, metadata, ontologies and semi-structured data, web services, and applications for Digital Libraries, Knowledge Management, Information Integration and Peer-to-Peer technology. He was editor-in-chief of Elsevier’s Journal of Web Semantics, editoral committee member of the Electronic Transactions on Artificial Intelligence (ETAI) (the Semantic Web), the Journal on Internet Research and the Journal on Web Intelligence and Agent Systems (WIAS) and is recognized as one of the most widely cited Semantic Web scientists.

In the few last decades, the Internet has brought tremendous change to the world’s economies and the way we live. It has also changed the way in which we as scholars publish our results and communicate with each other. But the Internet offers much more: the opportunity to globally access human knowledge, enabling more people than ever to gain education and participate in the enhancement of skills and the advancement of knowledge.

But the Internet provides only a technical infrastructure; in order to make the Internet useful as a knowledge-dissemination and education tool, our behaviours and processes have to change and old traditions have be re-examined and adapted to new circumstances.

The drive towards open access can be seen as being at least partially motivated by the need to change processes in order to maximise the benefits of the currently established Internet infrastructure (e.g. the Berlin Declaration on Open Access to Knowledge in the Sciences and Humanities signed by 447 signatories, including Science Foundation Ireland).

A frequently cited definition of open access, originating from a statement from the Budapest Open Access Initiative in February 2002, is:
‘…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 ’.

In Ireland, the National Steering Committee on Open Access Policy has adopted this definition in its National Open Access Statement,[1] which—among others reflects various open access policies by third-sector institutions and funding organisations. Open access for scholarly articles is a reality—and the transition to it despite challenges irreversible.

And there are challenges: different research communities have different ways of publishing their results, and gaining and improving their reputation among their peers. Open access requires a change in habit and evaluation mechanisms, and new processes and metrics have to be established. Established institutions like the Royal Irish Academy can help to find new ways to evaluate research quality.

Another challenge is funding for open access publishing: the cost of publishing in open access journals can be expensive and puts strains on already reduced research budgets—as reported on in a recent Nature News story [4].[2]

Cost-effective alternatives can be institutional repositories as often maintained by university libraries, national repositories like Ireland’s RIAN[3] or other repositories like Europe’s OpenAIRE.[4] They require new mechanisms of scientific publishing and recognition such as overlay journals, which don’t publish content themselves—instead they rely on other repositories.

Open access in the above given definition is restricted to scholarly articles, often in text form. A new challenge is to provide access to research and lab data—this challenge is by no means restricted to the sciences, in which experimental data is often being collected and needs to be published. Disciplines like archaeology or the data mining of large cultural digital assets are creating data, which needs to be made accessible.

Efforts like the Research Data Alliance[5] have started to investigate the questions that need to be answered in order to share research data globally, within and across disciplines. The questions that need to be answered are not only technical, they also span across disciplines. In order to make the data interoperable and usable, each discipline needs to get involved.

Our generation has the opportunity to create a globally shared scholarly network of knowledge, which educates the world and makes knowledge accessible to everyone on this planet. I believe this is a goal that truly deserves our engagement.

About This Series

In Autumn 2013, the Academy ran an ‘Open Access’ online opinion series driven by contributions from MRIA and staff. Each piece offered a different personal perspective on the opportunities and challenges brought about by developments in open access to the practice of research and scholarship. The series ran from 13 November to 23 November.

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