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Citizenship, Scholarship, and the Republic of Science

A guest post for OA Week by Barbara Fister

Every spring, when I teach a course for upper-division undergraduates interested in knowing more about how information works before they go on to grad school, we study three ancient texts. Well, to students in their early twenties, they seem ancient.

The oldest is Vannevar Bush’s “As We May Think,” published just weeks before the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Bush imagines a technology that would enable scientists to retrieve, link together, and manage the fast-growing record of science, something he felt was essential for human progress. For many, this essay seems to prototype the World Wide Web and Wikipedia, but it’s also an argument for the importance of access to and sharing of knowledge for the advancement of science.

The second is Michael Polanyi’s “The Republic of Science: Its Political and Economic Theory,” first published in 1962. In this essay, the philosopher describes science as a social endeavor, a democratic community that values each scientist’s voice and trusts that all voices can contribute to the advancement of knowledge without bureaucrats setting the problems and organizing the joint effort. It was written during the cold war and in response to a British government plan to harness scientists’ labor to solve pressing issues that would be defined by the government. (Vannevar Bush might have approved of the British plan, having been instrumental in starting up the Manhattan Project, arguably the first massive application of public funding to pure and applied science.) Polanyi argued strongly that it is in the interests of knowledge – and of freedom – for scientists to function as a republic, with each scientist free to determine questions worth asking, sharing the results. The freedom he felt was essential for the advancement of science was not for individuals, but for the commonwealth. “Such a society does not offer particularly wide private freedoms,” he wrote. “It is the cultivation of public liberties that distinguishes a free society.”

The third is not so ancient, a 1995 essay by physicist and philosopher John Ziman, “Is Science Losing its Objectivity?” In it, Ziman frets over the transformation of science from an academic pursuit to a commercial one, transforming what was once considered public knowledge into private property, endangering the very foundations of scientific inquiry and its unbiased pursuit of knowledge.  Ironically, this is the only essay not available freely online (at least, not legally).

Though many of the students in the course are not scientists, these readings help us talk about the purpose and nature of scholarly inquiry, the importance of intellectual freedom, and about the social and economic forces that threaten our ability to share ideas and build on one another’s discoveries. They are shocked by the commercialization of academic knowledge and puzzled why scientists and scholars who aren’t working for private industry don’t insist that their work be as widely available as possible. “Otherwise, what’s the point?” they ask, reasonably enough. Why do all that work if most of the world can’t benefit from it? Open access makes perfect sense to them. Toll access, not so much.

It cheers me up no end that young people who are headed off to graduate programs see the common sense of open access. They will, no doubt, soon be schooled in how to collect prestige, how to thinly slice their research into as many articles as possible, how to overlook the nonsensical mathematics of impact factor and identify which journals will give them the best shot at career enhancement.  There will be time for them to be schooled in self-preservation and the arcane rules of the game.

But I hope that kernel of common sense will have taken root, that they won’t forget that personal productivity determined through the metrics of publication is ultimately counts for less than their active citizenship in the republic of knowledge.

They are lucky to be entering their academic professions in an era when open access is gaining ground. I hope they will take to heart that our most important liberties are public, not personal or private, and will act on that belief by making their research open to all.  Their common sense about the common good bolsters my own belief that another world is possible.

Barbara Fister is an academic librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College and a regular contributor to Inside Higher Ed and Library Journal.

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