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Science in the Age of Open Access Next time your fellow commuters are absorbed in their smartphones, just think that—far from OPINION © L. DACOS/CC BY catching up on the latest celebrity gossip—they might be reading a research paper. Sadly, this type of literature has a bad press: the more scientific the content, the less comprehensible it is supposed to be. Hence the need for mediators in every field to simplify, summarize, and illustrate a body of literature whose target readership essentially includes specialists. The question is: can such tedious read be of interest to anyone other than researchers in white coats? The answer, surprisingly, is yes. According to a UNESCO reference publication1 by Alma Swan, a specialist in scholarly communication and open access, academics only make up 27% of the readership of PubMed Central,2 the giant biomedical literature database. Other readers come from private companies, and as many as 40% are individual citizens. Communities of patients are especially active, not only in reading scientific literature but also in producing new knowledge. By Marin Dacos A researcher and 2010 winner of the CNRS Crystal Prize, Marin Dacos serves as director of the Center for Open Electronic Publishing (CLÉO).10 marin.dacos@openedition.org The open access revolution This expanding readership is the result of a noteworthy, far-reaching change over the past 20 years. The World Wide Web, invented by academics, was immediately adopted by researchers as a means of sharing their findings, with physicists leading the way (the Web was created at CERN). Scientists opted for a simple yet radical solution: open access. Starting in 1991, they began exchanging thousands of physics papers on the open access ArXiv platform.3 France then developed the HAL open archive,4 which registered 9 million unique visitors in 2014. Gradually, other disciplines followed suit, either through ArXiv where researchers can upload their own articles, or in the form of entire journals posted online in open access, like Scielo,5 Redalyc,6 and Revues.org.7 The evolution since 1991 is nothing less than a revolution. There is no doubt that researchers now have easier and faster access to their colleagues’ work, which is a boon for science. More interesting still is the ongoing, radical change in access that reaches far beyond the scientific community and benefits society. Besides, this transformation involves much more than traditional scientific media like articles and books, which can take time and effort to read. It is now possible to join research blogs, where scientists discuss their work, usually in a more concise, accessible form, with their colleagues or the general public. Whether individual or collective, these scientific blogs are very popular, as they help bridge the link between the research community and society at large. When looking at the recent Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris, insightful commentary can be found on Hypothèses,8 One such opinion, published in the wake of the tragedy was entitled “Charlie Hebdo attack: this is not a clash of civilisations.”9 In short, “tedious” scientific literature has a future, especially in the humanities and social sciences, for the greater enlightenment and enjoyment of all. And all of it thanks to open access. ii invent matches, long before we have been able to develop interstellar travel. Indeed, if we look back on our own history and its recurrent, virtually endless cycles of violence, if we objectively consider our eagerness to plunder the Earth’s natural resources, many of which will be depleted in only a few decades, the tremendous instability caused by life itself seems to be the most likely explanation for the Fermi paradox. But the Earth is not yet “burnt out” by human activity, as portrayed in the film Interstellar. Will we be able to pull through and design, or at least outline, a strategy to maintain the considerable expansion of knowledge that we have witnessed over the past few decades? There is one particularly striking statistic on modern-day society, in which technological development has played a crucial role in improving living conditions for most of humanity: 6% of all the people ever born—already a huge proportion—and nearly 90% of all the researchers in the history of mankind were alive in the 1990s. I therefore believe that in the few decades during which we can hope to continue the current phase of technological development, all countries, and especially the developed nations that already have reliable research infrastructures, should do everything in their power to prioritize research and development. This is our only option to meet tomorrow’s challenges. And while this may seem increasingly unlikely, I also think that a strategy must be adopted to allow humanity to pursue a form of technological development that is compatible with nature and its laws. Only then will we be able, within a few decades to a century, to explore other planetary systems—and debunk the Fermi paradox at long last. The challenge is enormous, but all hope is not lost. ii Information Technology 1. http://www.unesco.org/new/fr/communication-and-information/resources/publications-and-communicationmaterials/ publications/full-list/policy-guidelines-for-the-development-and-promotion-of-open-access/ 2. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/ 3. http://arxiv.org 4. https://hal.archives-ouvertes.fr 5. http://scielo.org/php/index.php 6. http://www.redalyc.org 7. http://www.revues.org 8. http://hypotheses.org 9. http://extremism.hypotheses.org/366 10. Centre pour l’édition électronique ouverte. 17 SPRING 2015 N° 37


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