25th May 2014
“If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”, said Isaac Newton. Since the earliest days of science, progress has always been achieved by the free exchange and re-use of ideas. Understanding this, scientists have always leaned in the direction of openness. Science outside of trade secrets and state secrets has a natural tendency to be open.
Until recently, the principle barrier to sharing science has been the logistic difficulty of printing and distributing copies of papers. The World Wide Web was originally designed to solve precisely this problem. By making research freely available worldwide, the Web doesn’t just change how well we can do things, it changes what we can do. As Cameron Neylon has observed, at network scale you achieve serendipity by design, not by blind luck. At a time when the world is in dire need of scientific breakthroughs, the removal of barriers and use of content-mining promises progress in health, climate, agriculture and other crucial areas.
So it’s nothing short of tragic when publishers — whose job it is to make research public — purposely erect barriers that prevent this. The iniquity of paywalls is not just that they prevent citizens from accessing work their taxes pay for. Much more fundamentally, paywalls deliberately destroy the incredible value that the Web creates.
Openness is indispensable simply because the opportunity cost not being open is appalling and incalculable. Publishers must find business models that don’t break science, or they must go away.
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