The Canadian Move Toward Open Access

My weekly Law Bytes column (Toronto Star version, freely available version) focuses on the recent message from national science advisor Dr. Arthur Carty who argued that scientific success increasingly depends upon fostering a "culture of sharing" based on open access models of communication that leverage the Internet to disseminate research quickly and freely to all.

I note that while researchers rarely receive compensation for their contributions, the publishers have enjoyed a financial windfall by charging thousands of dollars for journals filled with the free content generated with the financial support of the public purse through millions of dollars in research grants. To add to the frustration, the researchers are themselves the publishers' best customers – universities, supported by taxpayer dollars, spend millions on research only to buy back the results of that research with millions more for scientific journals.

As Dr. Carty notes, the future success of scientific research depends upon changing this debilitating cycle.  He argues that "an open-access philosophy is critical to the system' s success: if research findings and knowledge are to be built upon and used by other scientists, then this knowledge must be widely available on the web, not just stored in published journals that are often expensive and not universally available."  Moreover, he argues that a culture of sharing will require "a new mindset among researchers, administrators, governments and in some cases companies – everyone involved in the creation and dissemination of knowledge."

This is certainly true of politicians.  Dr. Carty notes that regulatory frameworks, presumably including copyright, may require change.  Yet rather than facilitating reforms that would benefit research and education, last week Canadian Heritage Minister Liza Frulla assured the House of Commons that Canada' s current copyright reform proposal "does not touch education."

Across town, Industry Minister David Emerson used an address to the Canadian Club to rightly emphasize the need for national broadband connectivity and greater scholarship funding, yet he neglected to reference adoption of open access models to disseminate Canadian research.

The failure to include policy reforms to facilitate the unlocking knowledge is an embarrassment.  Canada has a world class Internet infrastructure and has experienced impressive growth in university based research and development. In fact, last week Statistics Canada reported that Canadian universities have also succeeded in greater commercialization of research initiatives with hundreds of spin-off companies that create new jobs and opportunities for all.

If Canada is to maintain that growth, we should follow the advice of our new national science advisor.  Science and research success depends on tearing down barriers, not erecting them.  A national commitment to open access is the right place to start.

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