'Open' is about equality

This was originally posted at: http://blogs.plos.org/paleocomm/?p=487

OpenCon 2014 was an epic milestone for the global research community. OpenCon 2015 was different. OpenCon 2015 was a storm. Never have I seen such energy, such drive, such raw creativity unleashed than on the few days we had in Brussels.

Designed to bring together students and early career researchers from all facets of research and from all corners of the globe, OpenCon 2015 is about empowering the research community to advance open data, open access, and open education.

Throughout the event, I began to wonder whether we might be using the wrong words to describe what we do. We talk about ‘open’ as in free to read, free to access, free to remix and re-use, etc. – some or all of these things depending on who you talk to. These words have also been hi-jacked by commercial publishers, to the extent that we now think of ‘open’ as an additional ‘service’ which we have to pay for.

But I think what the ‘Open Community’ is really championing is something much more fundamental here: freedom and equality; the removal of barriers. It’s not about ‘open access’, it’s about ‘equal access’ – open levels the playing field. What it provides is a new baseline, stating that every single person on this planet, if they choose to, has the freedom and the opportunity to access the outputs of research.

Mike Eisen, co-founder of PLOS, quizzes our panel!
Mike Eisen, co-founder of PLOS, quizzes our panel!

I think there are still many misconceptions that the OpenCon community need to work better at too. We still have researchers who don’t believe that research papers should be available to the public for whatever reason, despite the simple fact that over 700 organisations across the world now have open access policies. This kind of ivory tower way of thinking is slowly fading away, but still remains prevalent in some areas. Which means that we’re failing to get our message across properly, and need to think of new ways to make the ‘case for open’. In addition to this, one thing which I feel we need to think more about is the perception of the community. I think a lot of people from outside the ‘open community’ see us as trying to bulldoze our way through research and publishers, and how dare those young knaves talk about a system which they don’t fully understand. Well, I don’t think you need to spend too long talking to people (academics and non-academics) about our current publishing system before serious questions pop up (“Wait, you create all the content, pay publishers to take it, then they sell it back to you for billions?”). It’s not difficult to understand the system – it’s crap, and it’s broken.

Some messages were less subtle than others at OpenCon
Some messages were less subtle than others at OpenCon

But either way, I think we need to think about ways of being more inclusive, and sharing our collective expertise. There will always be some rocks that you can only break with a hammer, but a fast flowing stream knows how to flow around them, and with enough force get them moving in the same direction. Not a single person in the OpenCon community is doing what they do for personal gain. We’re doing it because we have a vision, and we’re collectively passionate about how to achieve it. The danger with any passionate community is that it can come off as cliquey to those outside of it, and we should really work hard to make sure that we maximise the inclusivity and participation in what we do, by sharing what we love and by sharing our understanding.

Panel on student community initiatives that I had the pleasure of moderating
Panel on student community initiatives that I had the pleasure of moderating

Gear shift! The participation and quality of projects at OpenCon was so awesome, that after just one year I felt like I’d been left completely behind! Thankfully, you don’t need me to tell you all about them, as you can watch them all online here! Some of the highlights for me included some of the community driven projects, like OOO Canada (yep), hearing the history of the ‘open movement’ from Mike Eisen, learning that Erin McKiernan had a new job despite taking one of the most ‘risky’ stances on open ever as an early career researcher, hearing from the founder of Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales, the PhD Starter Kit from Achintya Rao, and a new website that Erin had launched on why open research just, works.

We love you Jimmy, we do! With Jimmy Wales, Ross Mounce, and Mike Taylor
We love you Jimmy, we do! With Jimmy Wales, Ross Mounce, and Mike Taylor. Photobombed by a certain PLOS co-founder..

I had the pleasure of hanging out with Leah and Donna of the PLOS team too, and telling people about our new PLOS Paleo group! For me, I still think the combination of open access publishing with increased ‘accessibility’ through blogging (etc.), tied with a real research community vibe, is an awesome and important step forward, and am greatly thankful to PLOS for all their work in this.

The wonderful Donna and Leah at OpenCon!
The wonderful Donna and Leah at OpenCon!

I wrote about how amazing OpenCon 2014 was last year here, with the simple heading ‘Open access wins all of the arguments all of the time’, a quote from Ahmed Ogunlaja. This is still, I think, true. Except I think we’re failing to convincingly make these arguments for one reason or another. Part of this is simply due to the democratic process of policy making, in that it’s not just researchers who have a stake in the research domain. Part of this is due to deeply entrenched ideology. Part, in some cases still, due to ignorance, arrogance, a sense of academic entitlement, and narrow-minded ‘ivory tower’ perspectives (the Palaeo community, to me, seems way ahead of the curve on this). Whatever the reason, there are several things, as always, I think that researchers can do to help themselves, the research community, and global research quality:

  1. Inform yourself about the issues to do with ‘open’, and talk to your colleagues about this. To me, empowerment is about knowledge. We built the Open Research Glossary after OpenCon last year to help with this. This year, we’re writing a paper on the ‘evidence for open’. Knowledge is power, and wisdom is gaining understanding through that knowledge. Erin’s new site is perfect for this, and includes some very clever artwork.
  2. Help to address a broken research assessment system. Impact factors suck. We’ve drafted an open letter template for communities to encourage their research institutes to sign DORA.
  3. Become informed about broader topics such as copyright reform. We heard from Julia Reda MEP at OpenCon about her work trying to reform copyright in the EU, and the damage that non-sensical copyright laws have on prohibiting academic freedom. Chris Hartgerink wrote about how Elsevier are actively preventing him from carrying out his research. During OpenCon, this led to an open letter about copyright reform in the context of text and data mining, which I believe received a tonne of signatures and has been submitted to the President of the European Commission already. Win.
  4. Think about what academic infrastructure is, and how we can help to remodel one for a more efficient research process. Björn Brembs gave a stellar talk about this.
  5. Be brave. There is so much talk about risk, mostly to do with careers, surrounding ‘open discussions’. I don’t want anyone to martyr themselves for this cause. But be brave, and participate in discussions, and champion what you believe in. There’s no point sitting around waiting for someone else to have your idea and fix things.

I have to finish with my deepest thanks to the incredible OpenCon organisers and organising committee (especially Nicole, Joe, Shawn, and Nick) for creating such an epic conference, and inviting me again (still trying to figure that one out). You guys are beyond awesome, and without a doubt some of the most incredible people I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting.

Note: The views represented in this post are those of the author, Jon Tennant, and not those of PLOS, or the PLOS Paleo Community,