Friday, July 13, 2007

Scholarly communication, open access, and the granularity issue

Presenter: Jean-Claude GuédonUniversité de Montréal
Time: July 13 2007 at 9:40 – 10:40am
Location: SFU Harbour Centre Fletcher Challenge Theatre – Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

Jean-Claude Guédon, professor at the University of Montreal, is a key figure in the Open Access movement. He is the founder of the first Canadian scholarly e-journal, (Surfaces), steering committee member and Chair of the advisory board of the Canadian National Site License Project (SNSLP), and one of the first signatures on the Budapest Open Access Initiative (BOAI). For further information of M. Guédon’s accomplishments, please refer to his university profile (in French).

During his presentation at the Public Knowledge Project conference 2007, M. Guédon spoke to the audience about the process of knowledge production, storage and dissemination, from the Antiquity to present day. A quick history lesson on how Origen revolutionized the way text was organized, read and analyzed shows us that the digitization of our scholarly communications is also taking our own production, storage and dissemination of knowledge towards new directions.

As we move in these new directions, we must not only concentrate on the technical and organizational means of publishing online, but also consider wider implications accompanying this movement. M. Guédon has aptly recognized that while there are systems available to allow for Open Access, such as OJS, anything beyond accessing the information will lead to new forms of knowledge, new kinds of questions, new possibilities for the answers. For example, while reading an article in a print journal or an article in an electronic journal, you see an error. Can you change it? No, not easily, short of writing your own correction because the present system is too rigid, too unwieldy to permit such small-scale, yet potentially crucial interventions. To make the proper corrections, one would have to republish and perhaps even go through the publisher if it is in print. The communication process is therefore limited or blocked.

There is a second type of difficulty: the present system of scholarly publishing relies more on a credential system and a co-operative system rather than on the intrinsic quality of individual intelligence and the excellence of the submitted text. One does not enter scientific or scholarly territories without showing the right kinds of references - diplomas, titles, names of institutions, etc. As a result, the scientific and scholarly enterprises work as a two-tier system where the authorized write and read and the others do not write and often cannot read because of economic barriers, such as high subscription prices and lack of affiliation to the right library).

To address these obstacles, M. Guédon touches on the granularity issue. The article is not the only possible model to contribute to scholarly or scientific research. This is even truer of the monograph in the humanities and, in fact, the article has superseded the monograph in most disciplines. He suggests that knowledge should be regarded as a conversation. People should freely be able to contribute to it. In the scientific community for example, moving closer to a wikipedia model could be the way of the future as knowledge would be made available to everyone; it can be created together, modified on a global scale, improved upon, and so forth. However, the argument of quality comes to mind. He counters that the present criteria for quality inherently rest on a hierarchical vision of society. When excellence is sought, the greater the number of minds involved, the greater the quality of the work done: the case of free software and some recent analyses of Wikipedia confirm this general rule. The greater the numbers of people involved in an issue, the better the answers are crafted. Consequently, the lines that separate the experts from the rest of society should be erased. We will always have experts in various fields, but to limit contributions to knowledge as a whole to experts only is to deprive all of humanity of its enormous potential for distributed intelligence.

As a consequence of all this, Open Access is not limited to increasing availability or access, although it certainly aims at achieving these goals; it also corresponds to the relocation, repositioning, and redefinition of what knowledge is, what it means and how it is generated, governed and steered. Asking questions is no longer limited to those in the field with the right credentials; questions from the general public can then be addressed if they are allowed to the information. We presently have the means, but we must move towards involving the global community in our closed expert fields and thus recreate a true "Republic of science". Conversely, only with open access can we hope to come closer to this goal.

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