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Diego Gomez: Toll access turns scientists into criminals

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We are extremely pleased to present a guest post by Diego Gomez, biologist and open access advocate who is facing criminal charges in Colombia. You can read more about Diego and his legal case at Electronic Frontier Foundation and Karisma Fundation websites.

If you want to support Diego sign up the petition now.

As a biologist and a conservationist, I have been particularly interested in ecology, statistics and geographic information systems. Since I have been linked to small regional universities with limited budgets, my interests have faced many restrictions. These universities cannot invest in the necessary resources and tools to develop studies and research in the fields I am interested in. Unfortunately, the resource limitation drives students, professors and investigators to illegally try to access scientific literature and exclusive software.

I am one of these students and young investigators that have been exposed to illegality by trying to do research. In the lack of knowledge about policies and legislation in authors’ rights, I shared on the Internet a master’s degree thesis that could be found in the library of one the most prestigious public universities of Colombia. My main motivation to share this work on the Internet was to give access to this information to a biodiversity group study in my region. Otherwise, students of regional universities would not have been able to travel to the capital city to get access to this document. I performed this action in good faith, without looking for profit and keeping the document completely as it was, including the authorship.

Personally, I had the understanding that authors’ rights were restricted to the attribution of documents, which means, to cite the authors who generated the knowledge. Nevertheless, after being notified about criminal procedure against my person, I notice that authors’ rights, besides demanding the recognition of the authorship, also imply strict restrictions to works’ usage, including academic uses.

Fair use or piracy?

The practice of sharing knowledge –very common between students, professors and investigators in biologic sciences – is a crime in Colombia, with excessive punishment: fines and prison from four to eight years. This is the situation that I am facing right now with the Colombian justice system. In a few days there be an oral trial of the first instance in which my future will be dictated.

The core problem is that whilst internationally the fight is focused on piracy (commercial scale and intention), the Colombian legislation is too broad and not clear, to the point that sharing knowledge for academic purposes can be considered a crime. The latter is more problematic if we consider that the laws of authors’ rights have exceptions that have not been updated to guarantee fair uses of the works by academic and educational tools as the Internet. My experience has shown me that works, as the one I shared, that were created from biological science research (e.g. systematics, taxonomy, ecology, conservation) do not have a direct commercial value for its authors and so they cannot be compared to the works of the entertainment industry. In addition, if the work has been produced by public funds or by institutions funded by the State, then there is a public interest in its circulation.

Open access as a chance to overcome global inequalities

With this scene, I have to reinforce my interest in the use of open access tools, as a necessity to make research when there are limited resources, a usual scenario in Latin American countries. For this reason, nowadays I value the access to free software as the R Project and the QGis project, along with the possibility of publishing in licensed journals as Creative Commons and other platforms of diffusion and indexation of scientific journals as Directory of Open Access Journals, Open Access Button, SciELO, Redalyc, La referencia and Latindex, among others.

Recently, we dedicated the editorial of the journal Mammalogy Notes to “the policies of open access and its impacts on the Latin-American science (González-Maya et al. 2014). In this editorial we demonstrate the way in which Latin America has been left behind in scientific development at a global scale and the implications for the development of our countries. In addition, we state that the science in our countries does not fill its role of development, not only because of the low investment compared to other “first world” countries, but also because “generally, the information that is produced in the country is not accessible for most of the population, including the academics themselves…” for reasons of low dissemination levels –as shown by my situation – or because it is published in journals that restrict access. The high quality and impact science is published, mostly, in journals that belong to or are managed by big publishers and the access to it means a significant economic investment for the institutions, in some cases even millions of American dollars (Ahmed et al. 2008).

In the current context, it has created one of the most lucrative industries on the planet, which involves publishing and selling scientific information by means of big publishers (González-Maya et al. 2014). In fact, the Declaration on Science and the Use of Scientific Knowledge (Budapest, Hungary 1999;) points out “…as the scientific knowledge has become a key factor to richness production, its distribution has become more unequal”. Now then, the papers in these publisher journals are generated by research that usually is developed in public institutions or with public funds, then the institutions that were the center of creation of this published knowledge, must pay to have access to it.

Overcome the barriers

In face of this situation and to be consistent, my first publications have been realized in licensed Creative Commons journals and I have made the analysis in free access software. Moreover, I organize social extension activities as a part of the commitment and retribution I have since I have accessed public education in Colombia and Costa Rica, and by believing that access to knowledge is a global right. The activities of scientific research and the knowledge created by this means must pursuit human wellbeing, especially the abatement of poverty, and the environment rights as it is pointed out by the Statement about science and the use of scientific knowledge (Budapest, Hungry 1999). The necessity of promoting a dialogue between the scientific community and society, indiscriminately of the benefice brought by science is also expressed in the Statement. Thus, I want to highlight that production and diffusion of knowledge not only has to be free in the academy, but also has to overcome the barriers of access and impact on the society in general.

To conclude, I urge institutions that support research with public funds to encourage their recipients to publish their results in a way that assures equal access to information. Moreover, I call for researchers to back open access, in this way, we support the mitigation of inequality of science in our countries, we stay away from the illegality in the access to information, we can turn our research into an engine for development in our countries, and above all we will avoid that no other person like me, sees themselves involved in weary penal processes. Finally, I call to legislators and the managers of public policies, to cast their eye onto authors’ rights, because this situation can turn a scientist into a criminal.


Ahmed, S. S., Q-P Tran, M. I. Langdorf, S. Lessick, and S. Lotfipour. 2008. Open Access: The Alternative to subscription-based medical publishing. Western Journal of Emergency Medicine, 9(4): 240-242.
González-Maya, J. F., D. A. Gómez-Hoyos, and M. P. Sáenz. 2014. Editorial: Las políticas de acceso abierto y su impacto en la ciencia latinoamericana. Mammalogy Notes, 1(2): 1-3.

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