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Sreelatha Menon: Opening up knowledge

The movement for sharing scientific research for larger public good is gathering pace

Sreelatha Menon  |  New Delhi 

Massachusetts Institute of Technology last week allowed its journals to be accessed by all. The movement for sharing scientific research for larger public good is gathering pace.

Recently, a scientist took his audience on an early morning walk through New Delhi’s Lodhi Garden, of course through his presentation slides. Some people were walking on the lawns, some were laughing loud, while some were in meditation. What if these people were not allowed access to the park?

The scientist, Professor Leslie Chan from the University of Toronto, was talking about this question of access at a conference on open access organised by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in New Delhi.

Shouldn’t research and knowledge be available to the whole universe at the press of the key? Especially when such research has been funded by the tax-payers?

For scientists like Chan, proselitysing the world of non-believers, there is no debate on this.

Conversion is gaining momentum. For instance, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) last week turned an open access convert. The first such campus-wide policy went into effect after a unanimous vote by the faculty. Chair of the MIT faculty, Bish Sanyal, said in a statement that “the vote is a signal to the world that we speak in a unified voice.” The faculty, under the new policy, granted the university non-exclusive permission to distribute their articles through Dspace, its free online repository.

Both faculty and the university now have the right to use and share the articles for any purpose other than making a profit.

The small world of those who believe that sharing increases knowledge is expanding.

Three schools at the Harvard University have voted in favour of similar policies, with Kennedy School of Government approving the open-access measure on March 10. Harvard Law School and Faculty of Arts and Sciences approved the proposal last year. Similarly, three schools at the Stanford University have opened access to its journals.

In India, last month, the CSIR, the research council of the Science and Technology Ministry of the government of India sent notices to its laboratories to set up online institutional repositories and to publish all research data on them. Individual institutions have long been treading this path with National Institute of Science, Bangalore, pioneering with its open access journal, Current Science. The Indian Journal of Medical Research, published by the Indian Council of Medical Research, is open to all. Of course, hundreds of publications by research bodies, and even scientific societies, are yet to be made available to the public for free. Nature magazine last year began offering open access options like delayed open access to authors to beat the tide.

The question being raised by the gurus of open access like scientist Subbaiah Arunachalam and Prof John Willinsky of Stanford University, USA, is this: When the government funds research, is it not a given that it is meant for the public? Why should it be used by a single publisher for profit?

Scientists are being persuaded to go for open access because open access means more readership and more citations. Indian journals, for instance, were ranked 143 in a recent list of 233 countries in the Journal Citation Report. Conclusion: No one is citing or reading Indian research.

The MIT news release last Friday noted that the journal publishers had been charging subscription rates that were rising at a rate “far outpacing inflation.”

“In the quest for higher profits, publishers have lost sight of the values of the academy,” it said.

What if publishers refuse to publish an MIT researcher? Well the loss would be theirs, say those who support open access.

First Published: Sun, March 29 2009. 00:13 IST