The growing success of free software has led to a widening of the
culture clash between "open" and "closed" to include other domains. One recent
skirmish, for example, concerned a particularly important kind of digital
code the sequence of the human genome and whether it would be
proprietary, owned by companies like
, or freely
available. Openness prevailed
, but in
another arena scholarly publishing advocates of free (as in both
beer and freedom) online access to research papers are still fighting the
battles that open source won years ago. At stake is nothing less than
control of academia's treasure-house of knowledge.
The parallels between this movement - what has come to be known as open
access and open source are striking. For both, the ultimate
wellspring is the Internet, and the new economics of sharing that it
enabled. Just as the early code for the Internet was a kind of proto-open
source, so the early documentation the RFCs offered an example
of proto-open access. And for both their practitioners, it is recognition
not recompense that drives them to participate.
Like all great movements, open access has its visionary the RMS figure
- who constantly evangelizes the core ideas and ideals. In 1976, the
Hungarian-born cognitive scientist Stevan Harnad founded a
scholarly print journal that offered what he called open peer
commentary, using an approach remarkably close to the open source
development process. The problem, of course, was that the print medium was
unsuited to this kind of interactive development, so in 1989 he launched a
Usenet/Bitnet magazine called Psycoloquy, where the feedback
process of the open peer commentary could take place in hours rather than
weeks. Routine today, but revolutionary for scholarly studies back then.
Harnad has long had an ambitious vision of a new kind of scholarly sharing
(rather as RMS does with code): one of his early papers is entitled Post-Gutenberg
Galaxy: The Fourth Revolution in the Means of Production of
Knowledge, while a later one is called bluntly: A Subversive Proposal
for Electronic Publishing. Meanwhile, the aims of the person who could be
considered open access's Linus to Harnad's RMS, Paul
Ginsparg, a professor of physics, computing and information science at
Cornell University, were more modest.
At the beginning of the 1990s, Ginsparg wanted a quick and dirty solution
to the problem of putting high-energy physics preprints (early
versions of papers) online. As it turns out, he set up what
became the arXiv.org preprint repository on
16 August, 1991 nine days before Linus made his fateful I'm doing
a (free) operating system (just a hobby, won't be big and professional like
gnu) for 386(486) AT clones posting.
But Ginsparg's links with the free software world go back much further.
Ginsparg was already familiar with the GNU manifesto in 1985, and, through
his brother, an MIT undergraduate, even knew of Stallman in the 1970s.
Although arXiv.org only switched to GNU/Linux in 1997, it has been using
Perl since 1994, and Apache since it came into existence. One of Apache's
founders, Rob Hartill, worked for Ginsparg at the Los Alamos National
Laboratory, where arXiv.org was first set up (as an FTP/email server at
xxx.lanl.org). Other open source programs crucial to arXiv.org include
TeX, GhostScript and MySQL.
In 1994, Harnad espoused the idea of self-archiving in his Subversive
Proposal, whereby academics put a copy of their papers online locally
(originally on FTP servers) as well as publishing them in hardcopy
journals. The spread of repositories soon led to interoperability issues.
The 1999 Open Archives
Initiative (in which Ginsparg was a leading figure) aimed to deal with
this by defining a standard way of exposing an article's metadata so that
it could be harvested efficiently by search engines.
Beyond self-archiving - later termed green open access by Harnad
lies publishing in fully open online journals (gold open
access). The first open access magazine publisher, BioMed Central a kind of Red
Hat of the field appeared in 1999. In 2001 the Public Library of Science (PLoS) was
launched; PLoS is a major publishing initiative inspired by the examples
of arXiv.org, the public genomics databases and open source software, and
which was funded by
the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation (to the tune of $9 million over five
Just as free software gained the alternative name open source at
the Freeware Summit in
1998, so free open scholarship (FOS), as it was called until then by the
main newsletter that covered it - written by Peter Suber,
professor of philosophy at Earlham College - was renamed open
access as part of the Budapest Open Access
Initiative in December 2001. Suber's newsletter turned into Open Access News
and became one of the earliest blogs; it remains the definitive record of
the open access movement, and Suber has become its semi-official chronicler (the Eric
Raymond of open access - without the guns).
After the Budapest meeting (funded by speculator-turned-philanthropist George Soros, who played
the role taken by Tim O'Reilly at the Freeware Summit), several other major
declarations in support of open access were made, notably those at Bethesda
and Berlin (both 2003). Big research institutions started actively
supporting open access rather as big companies like IBM and HP did
with open source earlier. Key early backers were the Howard Hughes Medical
Institute (2002) in the US and the Wellcome Trust (2003) in the UK, the
largest private funders of medical research in their respective countries.
Both agreed to pay the page charges that gold open access titles
need in order to provide the content free to readers typically $1000
per article. This is not as onerous as it sounds: the annual subscription for
a traditional scientific journal can run to $20,000 (even though the
authors of the papers receive nothing for their work). For a major
research institution, the cumulative cost adds up to millions of dollars a
year in subscriptions. This annual tax is very like the licensing fees in
the proprietary software world. What an institution saves by refusing
to pay these exorbitant subscriptions as the libraries at Cornell,
Duke, Harvard and Stanford Universities have done in the US it can use
to fund page charges, just as companies can use monies saved on software
licensing costs to pay for the support and customization they need.
With all this activity, governments started getting interested in open
access, and so did the big publishers, worried by the potential loss of
revenue (the Microsoft of the scientific publishing world, the Anglo-Dutch
has had operating profits of over 30%). The UK House of Commons Science
and Technology committee published a lengthy report recommending obligatory
open access for publicly-funded research: it was ignored by the UK
government because of pressure from British publishing houses. In 2004,
the US NIH issued a draft of its own plans for open access support and
was forced to water them down because of fierce lobbying from science
Given the many similarities between the respective aims of open source and
open access, it is hardly surprising that there are direct links between
them. In 2002, MIT released its DSpace digital repository application
under a BSD license, while Eprints, the main archiving
software used for creating institutional repositories, went open source
under the GPL. As the latter's documentation
The EPrints software has been developed under
GNU/Linux. It is intended to work on any GNU system. It may well work on
other UNIX systems too. Other systems people have got EPrints up and
running on include Solaris and MacOSX. There are no plans for a version to
run under Microsoft Windows.
There is a commercial, supported version
too. Open Journal Systems is another
journal management and publishing system released under the GPL.
As the mainstream open source projects mature, the applications used by the
open access movement could well prove increasingly attractive to coders who
are looking for a challenge and an area where they can make a significant
contribution not just to free software, but also to widening free
access to knowledge itself.
Glyn Moody writes about open source and open access at opendotdotdot.
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