Open data and open access – what society loses when knowledge is offline

Reflections about open access and open data – a talk I gave at the Go Open Conference in Tromsø, March 5.

 Thanks for inviting me to Tromsø for Go Open Arctic Forum. It’s a great honour to be here in this distinguished company.  Kind of embarrased to say, but it’s the first time I’m this far north in Norway . But as an organizer of Girl Geek Dinners in Oslo, it feels perfectly right to go up north with all these famous geeks.

Today, I will talk about open data and open access and why we as a society lose if we don’t keep public data and academic research open. Additional keywords are public funding, production of knowledge and the internet.

But first a personal story. I started my Phd at the university of Oslo last fall to write about political communication and social media. The job has many advantages, ex free coffee. An inexpensive gym. And a relaxed dress code.

But seriously, the best perks are online. I have access to all the fantastic academic journals in my field of interest.  It is now more than 10 years since I finished my master’s degree at Georgetown University. In 2002, internet studies were a fairly new field of academic interest, and few of today’s leading journals existed.

For the past ten years I’ve read many of the popular science books about internet’s impact on society, where writers such as Clay Shirky and Evgeny Morozov are prominent and competing stars. But often the best work is not done by the academic superstars, but by people less famous, maybe without even a blog or a Twitter account (how is that possible)!

People who’s work is hard to follow unless you have access to academic journals.

It was almost shocking for me to see all the academic work I’ve missed out from for the past ten year since I hadn’t had access to the academic articles. Sometimes I’ve asked PhD-friends to pass along some articles. But most of the time, I wouldn’t even know that articles existed. Articles related to online politics, online journalism or open data – topics I’m interested in.

When I rediscovered this treasure trove again last fall, it made me extremely happy, but also pissed:

  • Why do we, as a society, bury public funded research behind paywalls?
  • Why do we make academic work so exclusive, hidden away from society in large?
  • And why aren’t more institutions, governments and researchers supporting open access, which is the practice of providing unrestricted access via the Internet to peer-reviewed scholarly journal articles”?
  • And how on earth are poorer institutions in poorer countries supposed to keep up with the high prices of journal subscriptions?
  • Why don’t we see the benefit and potential for developing countries if open access became more prevalent?

To demonstrate how strange the existing system is, I’ll give you one example. An academic friend of mine has not been able to publish his PhD online. Why? Because two of his articles are published in journals that don’t allow open publishing online…

Luckily, things are changing:  At the University of Oslo, everyone employed after January 2012, such as me, are required to self archiving at the University of Oslo’s electronic, institutional repository. We are also encouraged, but it’s not mandatory, to publish in Open Access journals.

The interesting thing about the Open Access movement is that the idea is to turn the business model around. Instead of giving the readers the financial burden – to pay 37 dollars pr. article, the Open Access solution is to ask for researchers, institutions or funders, such as the Research Council of Norway, to pay to get articles published, and make the content free for the readers.

Open Access is also pushed forward by EUs Open Access Pilot in the Seventh Framework programme. It aims to ensure that research results funded by the EU citizen are made available to the population at large for free.

But – there is a big but – As a researcher, you are premiered for publishing in the journals with highest impact factors – those journals that are cited most. And many of the  most prestigious journals are not practicing open access.

Interesting enough, research shows that there is a weakening relationship between the impact factor and papers’ citations in the digital age. And that can have consequences, according to the authors: ”If this pattern should continue, it might bring an end to the use of impact factor as a way to evaluate the quality of journals, papers and researcher”

This gives me a strong sense of déjà vu; doesn’t this painfully remind me about the debate about open data?

The debate about open data is centered around public data, such as maps, environmental data, weather data, paid by tax payers’ money. In Norway, some of it is publicly available through APIs, such as weather data, some of it is not, such as maps. Here, you have to pay a hefty price if you want to integrate maps from the Norwegian Mapping Authority. That’s why everone uses Google Maps here. (Update: Norwegian mapping data is about to be made openly available, but it’s not clear when)

I’ve been interested in data journalism for several years, and the main ingredient for data journalists is of course data, in most cases public open data. In many cases, journalists give up because the open data is not available in the right format (example crime data, which your need frequently updated, in machine-readable format.)

And even though Norway is doing fairly good when it comes to open data, many are better then us, as this Open Government Data Census from the Knowledge Foundation shows.

As a researcher, open public data is also crucial. In the project I’m working on – Social media and agenda setting in election campaigns – we need access to different kind of public data to do research on how political parties communicate and mobilize through digital platforms in different countries.

Here are some of the examples of useful political data:

To give you one more example  – One of the best data sources for public data in Norway – Statistics Norway -SSB – got recently  a new web sites. The pricetag was hefty 125 mill NOK – without API access. How is that possible?

Before I finish, I would like to add a few final points. Internet has made knowledge sharing much easier, which is the reason why we are talking about open data and open access today. But still, more needs to be done.

The suicide of the 27 years old programmer Aaron Swartz was a sad and tragic story. Swartz systematic downloading of academic journal articles from JSTOR and was charged by federal prosecutors, which could give him 35 years in jail. But it also a wake-up-call about the absurd system we have for locking up and making academic research unavailable for society at large.

We need to get a couple of principles straight, which is particularly important for government, universities and academic journals. But this is also of concern for individual researchers, journalists – and citizens like you and me:

  • Academic research funded by the public should be publicly and digitally available. That is not the case today.
  • Public data that don’t threaten the security of the country or a person’s privacy should be digitally available.


2 thoughts on “Open data and open access – what society loses when knowledge is offline

  1. Pingback: Making Research Open Access: Research Brim | researchbrim

  2. Pingback: Twitter Open Access Report – 4 Jun 2013 |

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