The commodified nature of information governs human development as much as traditional resources such as food, water, and arable land. The commercialization of scientific research and the “publish or perish” mentality has facilitated the creation of seemingly unscalable pay walls for information retrieval. This has led to a great social and scholarly divide between developed and emerging countries creating further disparity within the global community. However, this inequality and social injustice can be rectified through the widespread Open Access (OA) initiatives lead by the United Nations, UNECSO, and many specialized non-governmental organizations.
The foundations of OA were formally established as public policy at the Budapest Open Access Initiative in 2002. There OA was define as having access to information materials “without financial, legal, or technical barriers other than those inseparable from gaining access to the internet itself.” (BOAI, 2002). These resources include peer-reviewed publications, research data sets, and conference papers that are accessible through institutional repositories (IR) and Open Access Journals (OAJ). Global recognition of OA as a ‘global public good’ was further solidified in Berlin in 2003 and Salvador in 2005, where policy frameworks and advocacy issues were debated (Netherlands, 2011, p. 1-2). OA has since become a driving force in international information equality, ethical academic publishing, acceleration of global R&D innovation and general socio-economic development.
The United Nations and its subsidiaries, most predominantly the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) have an obligation to promote and provide a global policy framework to further international development through OA. This responsibility is primarily reflected in the adoption and implementation of UNESCO’s Open Access Strategy from the 36th General Conference in Paris (UNESCO, 2011, p. 64). The Strategy is divided into three areas including: “provision of upstream policy advice and building partnerships, strengthening capacities to adopt Open Access, [and to] serve as a clearing-house and informing the global OA debate” (Recom. , 2012, p. 1). In the implementation of these strategic activities, UNESCO receives the support from and permission to carry out these within member states. Moreover, OA alongside Free and Open Software and Open Educational Resources, are the triad foundations of UNESCO’s goal of universal scientific information access (Netherlands, 2011, p. 1).
Beyond UNESCO, the United Nations have an duty to promote access to information because it is a fundamental human right as stated in article 19 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” (United Nations General Assembly, 1948). Moreover, the ability “to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications” are guaranteed under Article 15 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights as well as UDHR Article 27. It is not a stretch to extend information access and OA to be seen as a fundamental human right, which needs to be safeguarded and protected by the United Nations. Furthermore, OA is an essential element to the overarching United Nations Millennium Development Goals (Urs, 2011, p. 4). Pay walls, permanent journal embargoes, and restrictive copyright policies are curtailing human and cultural rights to information, which can be stopped by the universal application of UN OA policies.
Open Access policies strive to overcome some of the modern and historical hardships faced by the international research community. For example, libraries and academic institutions have been faced with between 11% to 16% increased price in journal subscriptions (Lwoga & Chilimo, 2006, p.178). This is well beyond the rate of inflation, and outside the budget constraints of many institutions in the developing and developed world. Within European and North American establishments, this financial burden is handled by the creation of library consortia. However, this strategy is not used by many developing regions, especially within Africa (Lwoga & Chilimo, 2006, p. 182). Moreover, the southern development region is lagging behind northern counterparts in the creation and use of OA IRs. Gloablly, OA IRs are 49% European, 22% North American, 16% Asian, 5% South American, 4% Australasian, 1% Caribbean and 1% Central American instititutions (Ocholla, 2011, p. 10-11). This is not an accurate representation of global scholarly populations, and does not mirror academic output, but may reflect the disitinct regional differences in understanding and adoption of OA.
Research has shown that OA has had the greatest impact on the dissemination of knowledge, specifically in scientific research, in countries with a lower gross domestic product, especially within the southern hemisphere (Evan & Reimer, 2009). Furthermore, there is an evident divide between poor countries and very poor countries, where the latter is half as likely to have access to OA materials because of greater technological limitations. The adoption of pan-institutional and continental OA policies can allow for different institutions across emerging nations to share research with other nations facing similar research priorities or challenges. This improves the academic strength of the research and visibility of this international innovation, allows for further academic discourse and hastens economic development within the region. This could promote universities and research innovations as well as potentially helping to curb “brain drain” syndrome taking place in the developing world. The promotion of scholarship and increased publications from transitional countries would allow for more research funding to flow into those nations; hopefully making these scholars more than active consumers and passive contributors in the OA movement but giving them a chance to give back to the OA collective (Christian, 2008, p. 5). OA has the potential to effectively transform global academic communities in the future and has already made some outstanding progress.
One of the greatest success stories in the current state of OA is the Open Access Malaria Journal (Cockerill & Knols, 2008, p. 65, 66, 68). This OA project is directly helping to fulfill United Nations Millennium Development Goals of combating the disease. This true collaboration between developed and developing countries’ researchers and information professionals has allowed for faster dissemination of knowledge, a quicker research cycle, and local expertise and perspective in combating malaria. If this is any indication for future growth and innovation, the OA initiative is worth advocating and promoting because of its potential to shape the development of humankind.
To build on this success many policies to promote, protect, and develop OA must be put in place and shielded from scholastic commercialization. It is the responsibility of the UN and UNESCO to spearhead and provide a framework for policies both in a top down and bottom up approach. Key NGOs in OA projects and development within UNESCO policies include Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC) and Electronic Information for Libraries (EIFL) (Urs, 2011, p. 43). These organizations take multiple approaches in address OA including on an individual institution level, national campaigns, OA publishing projects, and international awareness. Strategies vary from being focused on policy, advocacy, and infrastructural development (Swan, 2012, p. 41-44). The issue of the lacking ICT infrastructure and the digital divide is not within the scope of this paper but it is an issue that is of a grave concern to the implementations of OA policy strategies and practical fulfillment within the emerging communities. Another limitation is the differing information literacy skills of scholars and information professionals and their awareness of green route publishing. However, through OA training opportunities and the development of an OA curriculum within MLIS/PhD programs this concern can be effectively addressed (Urs, 2011, p. 22-24, 43). The alternative to green route publishing is gold route, which can be a financial burden to the author. However the publication fee is normally waived, if an author is from a developing country (Cockerill & Knols, 2008, p. 67). It is essential that this charitable act by gold route publishers should continue. Mandatory OA submission of scholarly publications by institutions, the six-month limit of embargoes on published research, gold route waivers for authors from emerging countries, deposit locus, and copyright permissions are all essential policies to expand OA (Swan, 2012, p. 52).
The relationship between OA and UNESCO is intertwined in shaping global policies, national opinions, institutional research, and human progress. UNESCO provides the stage to promote and engage the international community in OA pursuits. OA is one of the greatest forces for social change, global development, and scientific advancement, and it must be protected and expanded. It is the ethical, cultural and moral duty of the UN, information professionals, scholars, and average citizens to fight for information equity through OA initiatives.