The open access revolution

By Paul Bouissac

A few centuries of cumulative science, methodically acquired under the aegis of the Enlightenment philosophers, have contributed to breaking down walls and disseminating knowledge which could have otherwise remained jealously guarded secrets. The belief that uncovered truths and deciphered codes belong in the public domain emerged only recently in human history from a long-standing background of commercial and political protectionism aimed at securing the exclusive benefits of technical and scientific discoveries.

The revolutionary Encyclopedia of Sciences, Arts and Trades, the brainchild of Denis Diderot (1713-1784), was meant to be a tool of intellectual liberation and empowerment for all humans. More recently, public-knowledge ideology, which has been forcefully articulated since the 1960s from within the scientific establishment, for instance by British physicist John M. Ziman (e.g., Nature 382, 29 August 1996, 751-754), still runs counter to well-entrenched nationalistic, corporate and disciplinary cultures of secrecy. When disclosure cannot be avoided, legal barriers are erected in the form of patents, copyrights and the like. Semiotic and economic deterrents are also used, more or less deliberately, such as the coining of impenetrable jargon or expensive print publications which put knowledge beyond the reach of the greater number comprising both specialists in other disciplines and generally educated populations across the world. Knowledge may be universally accessible in theory but actually tightly protected by the ways and means of its communication. Many interests conspire indeed to restrict knowledge resources: political, economical, ideological and religious.

The absolute condition for enabling the greater number in their quest for knowledge is of course literacy. But also the kind of general education that makes possible the understanding of the discourse of science, and provides the means for assessing its significance and reliability. The very acquisition of this competence remains in most countries a tightly controlled process, restricted to the happy few, mainly at the higher levels of learning. Obscurantism and manipulation can prosper as a result of this.

The ideal of universal accessibility may be utopian but in the age of the internet the selective control of knowledge has also become utopian. Some, principally from the old schools rooted in bureaucratic cultures, dismiss the new media as providing mostly misleading, irresponsible and unreliable information. It is true that anybody can set up a website and publicize his / her thoughts and beliefs in an unrestricted manner, whatever their scientific or ethical validity. But it is also the case that ignorance and fanaticism can be corrected by offering equal access to the results of genuine research. When the source of knowledge and the credentials of the authors of texts online are fully disclosed in a way that is verifiable, when proper listings of carefully chosen keywords are provided to search engines, and when it is ensured that the level of technology required to access these websites do not exclude those who cannot afford the latest hardware and software, it can be hoped that the greater number is not excluded from these knowledge resources.

The Open Semiotics Resource Center which was created in 2000 is a modest contribution to the open access revolution. Its launching was made possible by the technical and financial support of “Computing in the Humanities and Social Sciences” (CHASS), a service provided by the University of Toronto to facilitate research and the dissemination of knowledge. It is maintained in part thanks to the continuing support of CHASS. It was later consolidated by a .com site with the help of private donations. Several mirror sites internationally sustain the easy access to its numerous resources: the Cyber Semiotics Institute offers advanced courses free of charge; the Research Tools section provides links with prime open sources of knowledge such as PLOS (Public Library of Science) or fFMRI database, and others open sources; a Digital Semiotics Encyclopedia is in the making.

The latest addition to this site is SemiotiX, a global information bulletin online. Its aim is to provide periodic snapshots of the situation of semiotic research in the world, with photos, editorials by, and profiles of, active semioticians, mini-reviews of books, state-of-the-arts at a glance, and selective publicizing of scholarly events. A communication hub is indeed needed by a loose scholarly community like ours, made of scattered individuals and groups, specialized associations which have branched out, hybrid research projects across the whole spectrum of disciplines from physics to literature, third and fourth generations of semioticians who yearn to take a global view of the intellectual landscape in which they belong and to connect with similarly minded researchers.

SemiotiX is an open source bulletin online that will be sent free of charge to anybody who has an interest in getting informed about people and places, topics and events, books and websites, and all matters relating to semiotics in the broadest sense.

“In October [2003], the major German research organizations, together with a dozen other national and international research centers, signed the Berlin Declaration on Open Access to Knowledge in the Sciences and the Humanities. In accordance with the spirit of the Bethesda Declaration and the Budapest Initiative, the Berlin Declaration endorses fundamental changes in scientific publishing.[...] In one crucial point, the declaration extends the previous Open Acces initiatives: The holders of cultural heritage are also encouraged to support open access by providing their resources on the internet. [...] The Max Planck Society appeals to reserach and grant organizations to join its efforts, face the challenge, and embrace the unique opportunity ofered to build a global open access platform for scientific and cultural knowledge”.

Peter Gruss (President of the Max Planck Society)

Science, Vol. 303 (16 January 2004) (p. 311-312) The Berlin Declaration is available at: http://www.zim.mpg.de