The unexpected reader

I have just returned from the Berlin 9 Conference on Open Access, which was held in Washington, D.C. at the lovely conference center facilities of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.   It was a fascinating meeting, and quite different in tone from the one I attended last year in Beijing.

In its opening paragraph, this Chronicle of Higher Education report on the conference captures the fundamental difference.  This year the conference was much more clearly focused on the impact of open access on research; rather than talking about how open access will be accomplished, the discussion assumed that open access is inevitable and instead emphasized the differences that the evolution to open will make.

For the sciences especially, it was clear that openness is rapidly becoming the default, because awareness of its benefits is spreading so widely.  This year the partners in the discussion included many working scientists and, significantly, many academic administrators and research funders, who are well-placed, and, increasingly, motivated, to make the transition to open access.  The recent decision announce by the National Autonomous University of Mexico to make a decisive transition to open access is testimony to the impact a commitment by administrators can have.

Some of the most compelling discussion in Washington about the impact of openness centered on the idea of unexpected readers.  For years researchers have assumed that, especially for highly technical work,  all of the people who needed access to their work and could profit from it had access through the subscription databases.  This assumption has probably always been incorrect, but now the promise of open online access has really blown it up completely.  The possibility of unexpected readers, including computers that can make connections and uncover patterns in large collections of works, is now one of the great advantages of OA and one of the primary sources of the expectation for greater innovation.

One very touching story is worth retelling here to make this point.  Philip Bourne, a professor at UC San Diego and Editor in Chief of the journal PLoS Computational Biology, told of a rather remarkable manuscript that was sent directly to him in his editorial role.  He thought it was quite a special work of scholarship, on computer modelling of pandemics, and asked some of his colleagues with expertise in that field for their opinions.  Uniformly it was felt that the article was ground-breaking.  Finally, Bourne met directly with the author and, unusually, urged her to submit it to the journal Science.   You see, the author was a fifteen-year old high school student who had done her research as a visitor in university libraries and, for a while, using a “test” login obtained directly from a vendor.

The point here is not the obstacles to access that this young author encountered and overcame.  The point is that she was not at all the person the authors of previous articles on the topic thought they were writing for.  Yet she made a remarkable advance in the field because she was able to read those works in spite of conventional expectations.

By the way, Science selected her article for in-depth review, which is itself a big accomplishment for even experienced researchers, but ultimately decided not to publish her paper, which will now likely appear in PLoS Computational Biology, as she originally hoped.

In his presentation to the Berlin Conference, law professor Michael Carroll listed five types of readers who should have access to research output, and who do have access when open access becomes the default. On his list of such “unanticipated readers” were serendipitous readers, who find an article that is important to them without knowing they were looking for it, under-resourced readers  (like the high-school author described above), interdisciplinary readers, international readers and machine readers (computers that can derive information from a large corpus of research works).  By the way, the category of serendipitous readers includes all those who might find an article using a Google search and read that work if it is openly available but will encounter a pay-wall if it is not.

Open access serves all of these unexpected readers of scholarly works.  As Carroll summed up his point,  every time we create an open environment, we get unexpected developments and innovations.  We have come far enough down this road now that the burden of proof is no longer on open access advocates, it is on those who would claim that the traditional models of publishing and distribution are still workable.

4 thoughts on “The unexpected reader”

  1. Thanks for drawing attention to this Kevin. It was an important and intriguing thread through the (excellent) conference. It struck me too that it means that website designers have less idea of who might be reading and finding resources on their sites, which makes user-centred design more challenging.

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