Open Access as Humanitarian Aid: In Times of Disaster and Every Day

“Will you take this woman Matti Richards
To be your awful wedded wife”
(Dylan Thomas, Under Milkwood)

We seem to refuse the idea of constant open access to research as we would hold on to a pillow in a nightmarish town as imagined by Dylan Thomas. Like his townsfolk caught in the middle of their dreams, instead of accepting open access “in sickness and health”, we scream “No, no, no!” at the notion of making it our lawfully wedded partner for life. “We need research to be as useful as possible every day, in routine circumstances, and not just in times of disaster,” Peter Suber explains. “The “we” here are not just researchers but everyone who depends on research.  The stakes are not always elevated by earthquake and tsunami, but they are elevated by illness, climate change, environmental degradation, species extinction, unsafe technologies, unsolved problems, and uninformed policies.”

Times of Disaster: What Japan Did for Open Access

The whole world was extending deepest sympathies and support to Japan, while Japan in turn invited us to question again why people can not reach research information if they can use it – and for good cause. Peter Suber in his April newsletter brings examples in which humanitarian assistance takes the form of free online access to research. To name but a few:

  • OA maps of the disaster area from Open Street Map

    The US National Library of Medicine announced the activation of the Emergency Access Initiative (EAI) in support of medical efforts in Japan following the devastating earthquake and tsunami

  • Thomson Reuters is making its clinical reference content for dealing with radiation exposure available to clinicians and the general public, free of charge
  • Elsevier is providing free access to its primary online clinical reference tools – MD Consult and First Consult – to all IPs originating from Japan. Free access will be available through April, 2011
  • OpenStreetMap (free editable map of the whole world) is building OA maps of the disaster area to aid rescue and recovery efforts

Among other encouraging initiatives, Peter also warns about the sad one, and an impediment to OA related humanitarian aid. He reports:

The Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) has sensors around the world as part of its mission to detect nuclear tests.  In particular, it has sensors in Japan and throughout the Pacific.  The sensors are picking up radiation leaking from Japan’s six damaged nuclear reactors.  The data would be extremely valuable to rescue workers and physicians in Japan, and to policy-makers everywhere thinking about nuclear power.  They would even help calm some exaggerated fears on the west coast of North America.  But according to Nature, “the CTBTO has no mandate for making radionuclide data publicly available for the purposes of monitoring nuclear accidents, because its member states have not yet agreed for it to have this role….”

Peter Suber reports about many similar disasters that brought about open access to papers and data, or even brought about papers and data which wouldn’t otherwise be created such as Indian Ocean Tsunami from 2004 and the following creation of Aceh Books, an OA collection of more than 600 books about Aceh, Indonesia, or the Hurricane Katrina from 2005 and the collection of 8,000 OA photographs of Hurricane Katrina and other storms and Google Earth aided rescue efforts, and the list continues.

Every Day: This is Not the Case

The EAI initiative is scheduled to end in April, the Elsevier offer will expire in May, but will we continue to risk errors due to the absence of the necessary data and research articles? The short appearance and then disappearance of open access to certain data once the disaster is over, seems as elusive as a nightmarish dream, but do we not learn from such dreams? And is not the dramatic growth of open access journals in DOAJ, and the 171% growth of open access papers in Mendeley, the perfect proof that modern men today are most dependent on research and best equipped with information technology that can make research information flow freely. And yet, we seem to shudder at the thought of pushing this dream as far as it will go. Again, what ever the age and which ever the circumstances – men seem caught in the same limbo of appearing helpless.

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