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The Canadian Move Toward Open Access

Appeared in the Toronto Star on November 8, 2005 as What Good Are Ideas If You Lock Them Up?

Prime Minister Paul Martin’ s decision to appoint Dr. Arthur Carty, the former head of the National Research Council, as Canada’ s first national science advisor, clearly signaled the importance of research and development to the nation’ s future economic prosperity.  

This month Dr. Carty sent a clear message of his own – scientific success increasingly depends upon fostering a "culture of sharing" based on open access models of communication that leveragwww.ue the Internet to disseminate research quickly and freely to all.

The move toward an open access model represents a dramatic shift for the scientific and research communities.  For decades, politicians and policy makers have emphasized greater intellectual property protections as the key to research success.  As a result, Ottawa has regularly increased the level of copyright protection and is, in fact, facing renewed pressure to consider extending protection with new database rights and an extension in the term of copyright protection.

It is no surprise that the primary winners under this approach have been the major scientific journal publishers.  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."

The movement towards open access is taking hold in many countries around the globe.  The National Institute of Health in the United States and the Wellcome Trust in the United Kingdom have both announced that all of their funded research must be housed in archives that are available to other scientists and the general public.  Moreover, last year a UK Parliamentary Committee recommended open access in a report titled "Scientific Publications: Free For All?."

Open access has also attracted increasing attention from individual scientists.  Several years ago more than 34,000 scientists in 180 countries called on publishers to make primary research articles available through online libraries, while the 2003 Berlin Declaration on Open Access to Knowledge in the Sciences and Humanities encouraged scientists to publish in open access journals.

Private sector initiatives have similarly embraced open access.  The Public Library of Science, founded in 2000, has emerged as one of the leading scientific publishers, attracting contributions from leaders in many scientific fields seeking to publish under an open access model.  Similarly, the Creative Commons initiative, which facilitates more limited copyright controls over content, has experienced an explosive increase in the number of works under its licenses.  Now searchable through both Yahoo and Google, more than 60 million works including books, music, and films, have adopted Creative Commons licenses.

In Canada, the Social Science and Humanities Research Council, a leading federal granting agency, has become the first such agency to commit to open access for federally funded research.  The SSHRC, which just concluded a public consultation on the issue, plans to ensure that all funded research will be freely available online in full text.

As Dr. Carty acknowledges, 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.

Michael Geist holds the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law. He can reached at or online at

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