Beyond Open Access to the Effective Use of Information: Community Informatics and Open Access

Posted on June 1, 2010

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I’m personally a very strong supporter of “Open Access” (OA) . I feel that information should be freely accessible and particularly information that has been produced with public funding which includes much of the research information that fuels the very very expensive private peer reviewed journal industry.  I also think that it is difficult in any professional sphere to distinguish between information whose funding is “private” and information that is publicly funded particularly when effectively all new information builds on the platform of previous information/research which to a very considerable degree can be seen as part of the common heritage of mankind.

The issue of copyright I think should be re-interpreted not on the basis of “property rights” but going back to the original intention which was to ensure that information/intellectual producers were allowed the opportunity to benefit from their activities but in a way which did not restrict the overall social/public requirement of supporting scientific and technical innovation as a social/public good.

(As an aside I should mention that the Journal of Community Informatics) which I edit is fully “open access” with authors retaining their own copyright.)

So, I very strongly support my friend and colleague (and member of the JoCI Editorial Board), Dr. Subbiah Arunachalam (Arun) in his blog statement and open letter to the CGIAR (Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, the UN’s consortium of agricultural research centres, concerning “open access” to their research information and I wish he and his fellow signers of the document every success in their efforts.

However…

Even though I am a strong supporter of OA I would probably also want to see a rider attached to the OA position and the open letter which is a recognition that open access information primarily advantages those who would otherwise have the training/skills to use that information. These are primarily professional academics or researchers in Less Developed Countries (LDC) for whom the availability of pertinent information and thus research and teaching work is restricted because of their (and particularly their institutions) financial limitations in purchasing access to materials locked away behind toll booths of various kinds—the cost of journal subscriptions, of professional publications, of professional conferences and proceedings, of access to specialized databases and so on.

I think that there is a second issue to be addressed which is going beyond “open access” to that of “open use/usability”.  Giving LDC researchers access to the range of publications and research which are currently denied to them is a good thing to be supported but regrettably I don’t see a lot of evidence that doing this would in fact, mean that the uses to which they as researchers would put the information would be very different from what those who currently have access do with the information. Hopefully it would be different, but regrettably and from both observation and experience researchers and academics in LDCs appear to be no more likely to be concerned with making “their” information useful to the potential lay end user audience than their counterparts in Developed Countries.

Of course, open access information should and very likely would benefit people in LDC’s by speeding up the pace of research on matters of particular relevance in particular LDC’s or LDC regions especially insofar as there is locally oriented research going on in LDC institutions. But specifically for research institutions such as those linked under CGIAR the challenge is surely twofold—that of speeding up the pace of research and of speeding up the pace of dissemination and uptake/use of that information.

“Open Access” should make a very useful contribution to the former while not impacting on the latter which surely is the real value that comes from the additional knowledge and information that is being disseminated and developed.

Ensuring that research information where suitable is “usable” and not simply “accessible” would mean that for example, those at the community level would be able to “use” the crop and pest information available from the CGIAR labs without having to go through companies trying to broker (and gain value) from that information by selling them something while providing the information. The issue here of course, directly parallels the broader issue of “effective use” from a Community Informatics perspective.

Making the information usable would involve issues concerning information design, training of locally based publicly supported information brokers, translating information into formats and content usable by extension workers and so on.  I would very much like to see some attention being given in the OA campaign to matters of ensuring the “effective use of information” as well as simply the matter of “access”.

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