by Patrick Gamsby
14th May 2021

Using the three foundational public statements on Open Access as its foundation, this piece explores the often-overlooked connections and importance of transcending barriers that can be found in the Open Access movement and the practice of interdisciplinarity.

Open Access was born out of love. The first public statement to give contours to Open Access as a movement, the Budapest Open Access Initiative, was published on none other than 14 February 2002 – Valentine’s Day. But beyond the sentimentality of its public release date, one can find a deep commitment to philosophy, or, what is at the root of this word, the love of wisdom. This is evident in the accentuation of Open Access scholarship as an ‘unprecedented public good’, where the traditional scholarly practices of peer review and academic rigour can be combined with the accessibility potentialities that come with the ubiquity of the internet. The love of wisdom is also evident at the end of the first paragraph of the statement where its authors argue that ‘[r]emoving access barriers to this literature will accelerate research, enrich education, share the learning of the rich with the poor and the poor with the rich, make this literature as useful as it can be, and lay the foundation for uniting humanity in a common intellectual conversation and quest for knowledge’. There is excitement and hope in this statement, but also a basis in realism. With such a wonderful account of the benefits of open scholarship, the question arises: Why, in the age of the internet and the possibility to provide an ‘unprecedented public good’ of Open Access literature to the world, would scholarship ever be closed off and inaccessible? Clearly, such closure is not predicated upon the love of wisdom.

So what is Open Access? It would be worthwhile to give such a misunderstood topic a bit of shape. In his book, Open Access, leading Open Access advocate Peter Suber succinctly defines Open Access literature as ‘digital, online, free of charge, and free of most copyright and licensing restrictions’. Essentially, with Open Access, most of the barriers to accessing scholarship effectively wither away. Such emphasis on removing barriers has remarkable similarities to the practice of interdisciplinarity. Often defined as the integration of at least two disciplines, interdisciplinarity as a practice is more interested in solving problems and furthering knowledge than maintaining the sanctity of academic disciplines, much the same as Open Access as a movement is in favour of the unimpeded circulation of ideas, rather than their restriction. Both Open Access and interdisciplinarity are more interested in fostering the aforementioned ‘common intellectual conversation’.

All disciplines surely benefit from open scholarship, but interdisciplinary scholarship in particular is a kindred spirit of Open Access in its willingness to pursue knowledge without deference to artificial boundaries. Indeed, Open Access and interdisciplinarity have an intrinsic affinity that has gone largely unexplored and/or unnoticed. Despite this, it could be said that true interdisciplinary scholarship, in remaining true to its basic tenets of the integration of disciplines via common ground, would not just find common ground between disciplines, but would also find common ground with access. Accordingly, the practice of interdisciplinarity would be best served by the continued growth of Open Access and its effort to eradicate access barriers.

Much the same as interdisciplinary scholarship would benefit from Open Access, it can be said that Open Access would benefit from interdisciplinarity. That is, the individual and collective actions of a wide variety of groups and individuals are required in order to make Open Access the default. For example, the Bethesda Statement on Open Access Publishing, the second major public statement on Open Access, identified funding agencies, scientific societies, publishers, librarians, research institutions and individual scientists as all having roles to play in the advancement of Open Access. It is the coming together of these various disciplines, so to speak, that will enable Open Access to thrive.

The importance of solving problems and finding common ground is what sets interdisciplinarity apart from disciplines, and is, quite frankly, absolutely necessary for advancing knowledge. After all, what discipline would be able, on its own, to solve the major problems of today? Is the global pandemic of COVID-19 merely a medical problem? Is climate change just a problem for scientists? Is world hunger simply an economic problem? Furthermore, should the solutions to these problems hinge on the ability to subscribe to closed scholarship? Certainly not. All of these issues transcend academic disciplines and even go beyond the academy itself as problems that impact the globe and its citizens.

If scholarship is indeed a public good, should it not be available to the public? The Berlin Declaration on Open Access to Knowledge in the Sciences and Humanities, which was the third major public statement on Open Access, argues that the ‘mission of disseminating knowledge is only half complete if the information is not made widely and readily available to society’. In other words, there is both a deep love of wisdom and a love for the public good, which the advent of the internet has made possible. It behoves scholars, then, to ensure their work is available not just for other scholars, but for everyone.

Making Open Access the default, as the ten-year retrospective/vision for the future of the Ten Years on from the Budapest Open Access Initiative called for, is an entirely obtainable and even necessary goal. It may take an interdisciplinary team to do it, but it is a worthwhile endeavour for the betterment of the academy, for the benefit of society, and for the love of wisdom.

Patrick Gamsby is a Scholarly Communications Librarian at Memorial University of Newfoundland, Canada.


Read Dr Gamsby’s article on The Common Ground of Open Access and Interdisciplinarity in Publications.

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