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There is no revolutionary idea behind the Open Access movement


July 28, 2014

If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants wrote Isaac Newton in a letter to Robert Hooke on 15 February 1676, by which he meant that he was only able to make his discoveries thanks to previous knowledge.

The very same Isaac Newton was encoding his own mathematical works as an anagram, instead of publishing them (have a look here). His goal was to take advantage of his competitors and to gain evidence that he was the first author of some discovery, without revealing it to the others, thus without giving them the opportunity to stand on his shoulders. Why? I think that we need to recall one more fact from Newton’s life. The father of physics, together with Edmund Halley (whose name is given to the most famous comet) stole the unaccomplished work of John Flamsteed and published it under their own names. Flamsteed bought almost the whole circulation of pirated work and burned it (read more about it here).

These three facts from Newton’s life tell us a lot about the spirit of his time. This spirit includes a strong competition between genius minds, a strong desire to make new discoveries and to be recognized as their discoverer. At this time there were not as many means to protect credits, thus keeping encoded works in secret was one of the cleverest ways. However, things were changing rapidly. During Newton’s life the first scientific society and the first scientific journal emerged.

Not long after Newton’s death, Diderot wrote ‘discoveries are only valuable and secure when they circulate among the general mass of people[1]. I am impatient to take them there.’ This was how the idea of openness became central for science.

Journals became the way to accelerate and facilitate scientific discussion and a good way of ensuring credits to work. Since publishing in journals became a norm, keeping discoveries in secret was an inefficient strategy. There was growing competition and research was progressing faster. It was necessary to publish frequently to be discussed and recognized as a scientist.

Obviously some scientists still had secrets. But they were obligated to reveal parts of them from time to time, by publishing results or at least the description of having achieved them to make them credible. Otherwise these scientists would lose their academic positions and would not be recognized as scientists any more (this did not concern people working for the military or corporations, who did not have to publish, although they are not scientists in the classic meaning).

This has not changed as much over the last two and half centuries. In 1942, Robert Merton wrote about ‘communism’ as a central value for scientific community[2]. He meant that scientists do believe that their findings are owned by the whole scientific community and not by individuals or institutions. Some recent surveys have shown that this belief is still popular among researchers [3].

The scientific community works for the public and is funded by the public, thus its findings have to be public. There is nothing revolutionary about it. What is more, public discussion is key for scientific development and validation of research. The striking thing is that when you read old interviews with Paul Ginsparg (the founder of Arxiv) and other pioneers of so called Open Access movement you can hardly find the answer to the question ‘WHY they started to disseminate their work publicly on the Internet?’ They were talking mostly about technical issues, not ideological ones. Arxiv was established because it was technically possible to establish Arxiv and the idea of sharing unpublished papers to accelerate discussion is much older than the Internet.

The idea of openness was crucial for the scientific community, at least from the beginning of academic journals era, although when the scientific community was smaller and less diverse there were no problems with openness. The majority of researchers were working in institutions that were subscribed to all the important journals and access was virtually open to all interested parties.

Nowadays, there are a lot of people that do not have access to the works they need. Have a look at the Open Science Button map, which tracks people who hit paywalls, and remember that this is only a small fraction of the people excluded from accessing certain knowledge. It is because of the differences between North and South countries, huge (and growing) number of independent researchers, and inflexible journal prices.

Thus the problem is not why to guarantee access to knowledge for everybody. The only problem is how. This is a problem related to the distribution of money and power, thus it is hard. Although at this time, there are at least a few ways that we – as a community – are testing it.


1. Vermeir, Koen, and Dániel Margócsy. “States of secrecy: an introduction.” The British Journal for the History of Science 45.02 (2012): 153-164. p.158

2. Merton, Robert K. “The normative structure of science.” The sociology of science: Theoretical and empirical investigations (1973). p.273

3. Macfarlane, Bruce, and Ming Cheng. “Communism, universalism and disinterestedness: Re-examining contemporary support among academics for Merton’s scientific norms.” Journal of Academic Ethics 6.1 (2008): 67-78.

This entry was posted on July 28, 2014 by Witold Kieńć and tagged , , , .

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