Building the “Knowledge Commons”

Gavin Yamey writes:

Something profoundly important has happened to the journal you are reading. For a start, you no longer have to pay a subscription to read it, which means that anyone in the world who can access the Internet will be able to benefit from its scholarship.The journal will, as a result, reach new audiences: patients, non-governmental organizations, teachers, students, health policymakers, and others.What’s more, the articles are now published under a progressive publishing license, called a Creative Commons license, that allows anyone to distribute them freely, translate them, and create derivative works (provided the authors are given credit and the work is cited properly).These two crucial features—the global freedom to read and to reuse the materials—define Health and Human Rights as an “open access journal” and will, I predict, have an extraordinary effect upon its reach, influence, and impact.

In an article that I’ve written for the first open access issue of Health and Human Rights, I discuss how the journal has now joined an exciting grassroots revolution, a revolution that some people feel will be as influential as the “green movement” of the last few decades.It’s a revolution to create a “knowledge commons,” a body of knowledge that the public is free to use and to build upon.As I mention in my article, this commons will be an extraordinary tool for, among other things, improving global public health, managing environmental challenges, and even promoting more democratic forms of government.

As an editor working at the Public Library of Science, I’ve long believed that every single published research paper in science and medicine should be freely and publicly available.PLoS editors often get accused of being too “radical” for having this vision, but the arrival of the Internet made this vision completely achievable.The editors of PLoS Medicine have previously argued that the Internet provides the means to revolutionize publishing in two crucial ways. First, it makes it possible to disseminate health and science information at no charge to anyone in the world with online access. Second, because the Internet allows not just ease of access but ease of reuse (I can, for example, send an article to a thousand people in just seconds), an article’s usefulness is limited only by a user’s imagination.

So what is getting in the way of achieving a truly public digital library of science and medicine?Well, like all revolutions, this one is facing resistance from organizations with a powerful vested interest in maintaining the status quo.In a recent New Yorker article about the search engine Google, this resistance was succinctly described by Ken Auletta.Making information universally accessible, wrote Auletta, is “an ambitious goal that often clashes with those whose business is to own and distribute it.”Traditional scientific and medical publishers have made it their business to own and sell research articles, and have become exceedingly rich in the process. A typical journal article costs $25-50 to read—the picture below, for example, shows that unless your institution has a subscription to the journal Library Management, the paper on “Impediments to promoting access to global knowledge in sub-Saharan Africa” will, ironically, cost you $35.50.

Typical journal article
Typical journal article

Fortunately, the momentum behind the open access movement—including huge support from research funding agencies, governments, patient advocacy groups, universities, and others—is proving to strong to hold back.To give just one example of this unstoppable force, President George Bush signed a bill into law on December 26 2007 mandating NIH researchers to deposit a full text version of their research papers in the NIH’s PubMed Central database, making them publicly available within a year after publication.

It’s incredibly exciting to me to watch the explosion of the knowledge commons, and to see the possibilities that it generates.Almost every day I read about new ways in which this commons could be used.Just a few of the recent projects that have caught my attention are the Cape Town Open Education Declaration, an effort to make learning and teaching materials available to everyone online, regardless of income or geographic location, and the People’s Open Access Education Initiative, which aims “to build public health capacity in low- to middle-income countries, using open education resources freely available on the Internet.”

For the health and human rights community, the knowledge commons could play a crucial role in the worldwide promotion and protection of health as a human right, and even in monitoring or highlighting health-related human rights abuses. As I argue in my article, this commons could, among other things, “provide researchers, clinicians, and activists with unfettered access to the data that they need to support their human rights work. It could become a rich public venue for sharing research and policy data, global analysis, discussion, and debate, case reports, and experiences from the field.” I’m looking forward to watching this commons evolve.