14 January 2008

Bringing knowledge into the public domain

Moving digital content into the public domain - achieving free and unfettered flow of knowledge - was the focus of a session at the recent Global Knowledge Conference in Malaysia.

Three speakers - Arthur Sale (University of Tasmania), Peter Ballantyne (IAALD and Euforic), and Eve Gray (University of Cape Town) - contributed to a session moderated and organized by Subbiah Arunachalam of the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation.

Among the lessons learned: Technology offers great opportunity for knowledge sharing and dissemination but we still don't make full use of it. All research results, especially those resulting from publicly funded research, and knowledge should be made public in terms of: Availability, Accessibility, Applicability.

Arthur Sale described Australian approaches to open access for knowledge sharing purposes. The key problem is that the various initiatives do not capture all research, and therefore all Australian research is not yet open access. He suggested tat all developing countries should establish an Internet-connected repository in each research university. They should require that every researcher deposits publications in a repository. They should also bring pressure on developed countries to similarly require their universities and research institutions to make their research available on the Internet.

Peter Ballantyne metaphorically explained open information and knowledge exchange as similar to "passports and visas", meaning if we want to travel, we need a passport and for some countries, a visa. When Information and knowledge want to travel and migrate they also need open passports, open borders - the e-equivalent of a global EU "Schengen" visa for instance. When public funding is used to generate such information and knowledge, the passport should be free and visa costs waived.

He elaborated three themes through which it is possible to achieve open and accessible information and knowledge. The first is to adopt an innovation systems perspective - which essentially recognizes that all actors have knowledge, and should therefore be involved in knowledge sharing. Such an approach helps to build 'open communities' where all perspectives and expertise can be contributed to solve an issue or problem.

Second, he emphasized that research is often seen as a vehicle to create public goods, usually knowledge and technology. To make such goods 'public' and internationally relevant, these research outputs need to be made available, accessible, and applicable. These do not happen automatically and steps are needed to reward progress on all three of these lines. This requires proactive action by researchers, governments, as well as information and publishing specialists to ensure that information is not just available - which it is often is, but is also widely accessible, which it often is not, and, most challenging perhaps, is put into forms that make it easy to apply and use.

Third, he emphasized web 2.0 as an approach for open and accessible knowledge and information sharing, where we need to have standards in terms of attitudes as well as the tool set. By using tools like blogs, wikis, and RSS feeds, organizations are already moving in the direction of more open knowledge sharing. As important as the tools are, the mindset that goes with web 2.0 encourages collaboration, sharing, valuing the content of others, and empowering individuals to create new knowledge from what already exists.

Eve Gray brought up the issue of national policies in developing countries about open access and sharing knowledge. Unlike in Australia and other developed countries, South Africa and some other developing countries face problems with policies for publication and knowledge sharing. For example: some governments spent billions for research but they spent nothing for dissemination. She argued that we have to use technology to disseminate our own knowledge and research results across borders, in which open access is key.

The discussion part of the session raised several questions:

- How innovation and technology can be applicable to the grassroots? In India, knowledge from experts is made available to the local community by some volunteers working in knowledge centres who translate the information into simple language that can be understood by non-experts. It is also possible to print out and put on notice board to be accessible to people. Or they can simply inform the people (villagers, farmers, and fishermen) by speakers. In open knowledge sharing environments, such as those pioneered by MSSRF in India, the greatest opportunity is to empower the villagers and farmers to recognize the value of what they each already know and to support this 'peer to peer' exchange. This can be supplemented by expert knowledge from outside.

- How to find a different term than "open access"? Because this term "open Access" in most cases refers to technological access. Perhaps we can use term "open dissemination". In Chinese, open access is translated as "open storage and retrieval". It's important to get away from the notion that we are 'pushing' or disseminating information. 'Open dissemination' is done 'to' people, 'open access' is provided 'for' people, we need a much more inclusive and participatory notion that captures both of these while also allowing open and reciprocal exchange and sharing for the mutual benefit of us all.

by Peter Ballantyne, adapted from the rapporteur notes of the session


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