When You Work in the Open, Everyone Can Be a Collaborator


Open access is the practice of making research available online, for free, ideally under licenses that permit widespread dissemination. This year’s theme for Open Access Week is “open for collaboration,” and that theme hits on what’s really exciting about open access. Open access—both in academia and beyond—enables a kind of collaboration that can scale very quickly.

When research is closed, no one can access it unless they (or, more often, the institutions where they work or study) can afford expensive journal subscriptions or online libraries. When research is open, anyone can access it, study it, and use it, regardless of their budget or institutional affiliation.

Open access also opens the door to a type of collaboration that wouldn’t exist otherwise. Authors that publish their research in an open access journal—or deposit it in an open access repository after publication—invite others to use it and transform it in ways that they might not have even imagined. The work can become part of a larger project, expanding the body of public knowledge even more.

Last month, Business Insider interviewed Mark Hahnel, founder and CEO of Figshare, an open access platform for raw datasets and figures. According to Hahnel, one problem with traditional science publishing is that many journals don’t publish negative results, meaning that scientists unknowingly repeat the same experiments as each other:

[I]f you were looking for the cure for cancer, you’d only be able to find research that shows a positive outcome, like “X drug has worked on prolonging the life of a patient.” However, it’s difficult to find the 10,000 other papers that have researched other drugs or avenues for a cure that didn’t work or only worked on some people.

By sharing their data with each other over platforms like Figshare, researchers can create worldwide networks of collaboration and solve important problems more quickly.

Open access also tears down traditional barriers between people with access to online research libraries and those without it. Open access facilitates collaboration between academics and non-academics. Take Jack Andraka—when he was 16, he used open access papers from PubMed Central to develop a method for detecting a rare type of cancer.

Or disability rights activist Stef Benstead, who advocates for updates to the British government’s work capability assessment. Benstead says that her work wouldn’t be possible without open access:

A lot of my work is based on drawing conclusions from the available evidence and presenting it to MPs, as they don’t have time to do that themselves. … If I can’t read the evidence, I can’t present complete work, and I will miss out on valuable ideas and data.

Open access is about more than research

In a broader sense, open access and the collaboration that it engenders are at the heart of many of the principles that EFF fights for. When we advocate for a more balanced approach to copyright law, it’s because the way that copyright is currently structured restricts access to knowledge and culture. Copyright ought to open doors to people collaborating with their culture, but copyright’s excessive scope and duration keep the previous generation’s contributions locked down.

Patents were designed to encourage innovation and meant to teach the world how the inventions they describe work. But today, the system rewards vagueness over substance.

On another level, the greatest open access fight might be over lawmaking itself. Just as research is more beneficial when non-academics can access it, the law is more justifiable when lawmaking isn’t done in secret. The horrifying details of the finalized Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement stand as a stark reminder of why laws should be written in the open.

Whether it’s in an educational institution or in international trade agreements, the same principle applies: sharing knowledge and information publicly leads to a more collaborative—and more free—society.

Originally published at Electronic Frontier Foundation.

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