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OpenCon: Students and Early-Career Researchers for Open Access, Open Education, and Open Data
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Posted On December 2, 2014
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The Problem With Paywalls

In the same panel, Jack Andraka, a young inventor, scientist, and cancer researcher, talked about his experiences using openly accessible research when at the age of 15, he developed a new, low-cost screening tool for pancreatic cancer. Andraka explained that he ran into several challenges throughout his R&D process, but “the greatest difficulty was scientific paywalls.”

As he explained, “[Paywalls are] creating a fundamental barrier between academics and everyone else—kids, the public. … It’s a problem for everyone.” Furthermore, paywalls create “a very rigid class hierarchy in terms of knowledge.” Andraka spoke about the “knowledge elite”—the few wealthy institutions that can pay for 40,000-plus subscriptions a year. Under the “knowledge billionaires” (Harvard, Stanford, and Yale universities, etc.) are the state-run universities. But everyone else is either relegated to the “knowledge middle class,” or they live in “knowledge poverty,” where “you can’t access basic science knowledge.”

Andraka challenged the audience to think differently. “What if we were looking at a science democracy, where everyone has the same access to information? Knowledge shouldn’t be a commodity. Science shouldn’t be a luxury. Not because it’s economically sound, but because it’s ethical.” He ended with one final push for openness: “If a 15-year-old who didn’t quite know what a pancreas was can figure out a new way to detect pancreatic cancer, just think of what we all can do. …”

Personal Journeys to Openness

Several speakers talked about the personal journeys that led them to openness. Erin McKiernan, a postdoctoral fellow at Wilfrid Laurier University and a visiting scholar at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, shared her experiences going back and forth to Mexico during the past few years, where she has seen firsthand how lack of access is “slowing down students’ progress and research.” But, as she noted, “many people do not have access to the literature they need. It’s not just students … but taxpayers, patients, students working in non-conventional settings, doctors, government employees … not everyone is captured by an academic umbrella,” even many people in the U.S.

McKiernan explained that her experiences led her to make a series of decisions. She said, “If I’m going to make it in science, it has to be on terms I can live with.” As a result, she has pledged, “I will not edit, review, or work for closed access journals. I will blog my work and post preprints when possible. I will publish only in open access journals. I will not publish in Cell, Nature, or Science. I will pull my name off of a paper if coauthors refuse to be open.”

Reaction to her personal pledges has been mixed. Some people have been very supportive, while others have suggested that it is the equivalent of career suicide. She explained, “I don’t think it has to be career suicide. I think you can be open and still be successful … and as an early-career researcher, I think it can help [you] make a name [for yourself]. But regardless, I think I need to work on terms I can live with.”

She discussed several typical concerns raised by early-career researchers regarding openness and then proceeded to “mythbust” each concern, highlighting increased visibility of open data and open literature, increased citations, and faster citations, among other developments. As was reiterated by several speakers, authors who want to publish in a non-OA journal can still deposit preprints into open repositories such as a university’s or into general-purpose repositories, including figshare. She explained, “If all else fails, self-deposit!” Just don’t sign away your rights to do so, and be sure to use the SPARC Author Addendum or publish in a journal that automatically offers permission to self-archive.

During his opening remarks, Nick Shockey, director of R2RC, observed that “we won’t really know how successful this meeting is until a few months from now, when we see what you take away from the meeting, what you do …” While it may take a few months to feel the full effects of the meeting, some individuals have used McKiernan’s pledge as a call to action. David Carroll, co-creator of the Open Access Button and a medical student, has already announced on his blog that he is pledging to use openly licensed materials for his medical education as much as possible, and, when not possible, will “use an alternative but I will take the subsequent knowledge to edit Wikipedia, so everyone can benefit from the Commons.” Likewise, since he will attend lectures and tutorials, he plans to “request that the lecturer put their materials online under a Creative Commons Attribution Licence [sic]. If this is not possible, I’ll take the knowledge I have learned in medical school and add it to the Commons.”

A few days after the meeting, Shockey shared a few thoughts about the event via email: “In his closing remarks at OpenCon 2014, Michael Carroll referred to those in attendance as ‘OpenCon alumni.’ While this may be unusual for a conference, it perfectly reflects the energy and sense of connection present at the meeting. We’re already beginning to see a real community form around OpenCon to turn passion into action and to support the many ideas which have already been generated by those who participated—both in-person and online.”

Video recordings of the presentations are available on R2RC’s YouTube channel, and you can find tweets from the event with the hashtag #opencon2014.


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Abby Clobridge is the founder of and principal consultant at FireOak Strategies (formerly Clobridge Consulting), a boutique firm specializing in knowledge management, information management, and open knowledge (open access, open data, open education). Abby has worked with a wide range of organizations throughout the world, including various United Nations agencies; private sector companies; colleges and research universities; nonprofit, intergovernmental, and multi-stakeholder organizations; and the news media. She can be found on Twitter (@aclobridge).

Email Abby Clobridge

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