Canada Risks Missing Out on Open Access Momentum

My weekly technology law column (Toronto Star version, homepage version) focuses on open access in Canada. Last week, Liberal leader Stephane Dion committed to substantial increases to Canada's federal research funding in a major speech on education and research at the University of Western Ontario.  The Liberal promise – which comes on the heels of increased Conservative support for the federal research granting councils in the 2008 budget – reflects a growing all-party emphasis on the link between research support and economic performance. While the research and business communities will undoubtedly welcome the increased financial commitment, it is worth contrasting the Canadian emphasis on more spending, with the Australian approach on greater access to the research itself. Australian Senator Kim Carr, who serves as the Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research, recently committed to "promote the freest possible flow of information domestically and globally." 
Carr's comments follow a major policy review that concluded that "to the maximum extent practicable, information, research and content funded by the Australian governments. . . should be made freely available over the Internet as part of the global public commons. This should be done while the Australian Government encourages other countries to reciprocate by making their own contributions to the global digital public commons."

The Australian move toward a national open access policy is part of an international trend that prioritizes using the Internet to facilitate public access to publicly-funded research.  In recent months, the United States and the European Union have taken strong steps in this direction, including legislative mandates that require researchers who accept public grants to make their published research results freely available online within a reasonable time period.

Many universities have followed suit. Faculties at Harvard and Stanford have voted to adopt open access policies, while the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Open Courseware Consortium now boasts materials from thousands of courses from over 100 universities around the globe.  Although there have been some lobbying attempts to reverse these developments, including a ill-advised bill recently introduced in the U.S. Congress, the momentum is clearly with open access.  

That is generally true in Canada as well.  The Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the federal health research granting council, has adopted an open access policy and the two other major research councils appear to be moving the same direction. Canadians have also played a prominent role in supporting open access for the developing world.  Open Journal System, an open source software platform that facilitates open access publishing, was developed in Canada and now supports nearly 2,000 journals worldwide. Similarly, the University of Toronto provided the lead support for BioLine International, which was founded in 1993 to bring scientific journals, largely from developing countries, to the Internet.  Today, BioLine hosts over 70 journals from 15 countries.  Last year, more than 3.5 million full-text articles were freely downloaded from the site.   

While the Canadian success stories cannot be overlooked, there remains a sense that Canada is falling behind in the area.  Political leaders have not addressed the issue, while few Canadian universities have emerged as global leaders.  Indeed, only Athabasca University and Capilano University have joined the MIT Open Courseware Consortium and the University of Calgary stands as the only institution to allocate specific financial support for faculty open access publishing. In fact, even the success of BioLine International is in jeopardy as the University of Toronto inexplicably recently reneged on an earlier commitment to provide ongoing support.

As it happens, October 14th is both the date of the next federal election and the first international open access day. While open access is not a ballot box issue, Canada's approach says much about how it views its future as a research and innovation leader.

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