On February 14, 2002, a small text of fewer than a thousand words quietly appeared on the Web: titled the “Budapest Open Access Initiative” (BOAI), it gave a public face to discussions between sixteen participants that had taken place on December 1 and 2, 2001 in Budapest, at the invitation of the Open Society Foundations (then known as the Open Society Institute).
Actually, the Budapest meeting was the seat of impassioned (and often divergent) analyses and critiques of various dysfunctional aspects of scientific communication: the slowness of the editorial process, the high price of journals, and the failure to take advantage of the Internet were all cited as obstacles to the deployment of an optimal communication system for scholarly research. At the end of the day, however, as no agreement had emerged, the idea of crafting a position paper, a kind of manifesto, emerged: it was felt that the very effort needed to make such a result possible would help cement the small group that had been convened in Hungary, and help it to move forward – despite initial differences.
Thanks to the miracles of Internet communication, creating a position paper worked. Convergence was achieved in the form of the document that emerged on Valentines Day 2002. In fact, the virtual conversation among the participants had brought forth an energy and an enthusiasm that quickly transmuted a term – Open Access – into a movement. It must be added that the textual crafting of the BOAI was masterfully conducted by Peter Suber, who also lent his felicitous writing style to the document. It started with a beautiful and ringing statement that conferred a form of historical necessity to Open Access:
“An old tradition and a new technology have converged to make possible an unprecedented public good.”
Wedding the old – the scientific ethos – with the new – computers and the Internet – elicited a powerful, historically grounded synthesis that gave gravitas to the BOAI. In effect, the Budapest Initiative stated, Open Access was not the hastily cobbled up conceit of a small, marginal band of scholars and scientists dissatisfied with their communication system; instead, it asserted anew the central position of communication as the foundation of the scientific enterprise. Communication, as William D. Harvey famously posited, is the “essence of science,” and thanks to the Internet, scientific communication could be further conceived as the distributed system of human intelligence. This profoundly human project – really, that of the Scientific Revolution – corresponds to the bootstrapping of humanity to ever-rising levels of understanding reality.
The very values of science that the great sociologist of science, Robert K. Merton had identified were the age-old foundations, the ethos that emerged with the Scientific Revolution. Indeed, thanks to new possibilities offered by print technology, a distributed form of human intelligence had begun to scale up in the 17th century. Now, with the rise of global computer networks, the next stage in the rise of distributed human intelligence is clearly in the offing. Open Access is simply a way to express the cross-fertilization of the very culture of science with new technologies to create the optimal communication system science needs.
With a few relatively simple steps, or so it seemed in 2002, the power of networked brains could be unleashed, and it could be done swiftly, so obvious and compelling was Stevan Harnad’s image of “skywriting” as it first emerged in the late ‘80’s. Fifteen years after the BOAI, however, history is teaching us once more that we must be both persistent and patient. Much has happened, and much of it is positive, but taking stock of what has been achieved has also become an urgent task, if only to get a clear sense of our bearings: while Open Access is now here to stay, it also displays a variety of forms that do not all conform with the project of distributed human intelligence with which it is associated. Lesser, degraded, forms of Open Access have also and gradually emerged, sometimes as the result of power plays by powerful actors, sometimes out of compromises proposed by people of good will. At the same time, the very multiplicity of social actors now involved in Open Access has made the field much more complex than it was fifteen years ago.
Meanwhile, digital culture is progressing apace, and its effects are profound, not just technological. For example, the very notion of document as a tool to structure thought, memory and verifiable predictions is undergoing deep transformations that will not be fully understood for decades. It took centuries to understand print documents. Open Access is a spin-off of digital culture, and it cannot be understood without reference to it.
In the absence of computers and networks, access to knowledge was limited to what book dealers and libraries could offer. As a subsidized reader, a scientist was limited to what was available in the local library, and this was the best kind of access that could be offered in the print world. When the same limitations were maintained with digital documents transmitted over networks, many challenged its rationale. Perhaps legitimate for novels and cookbooks, whose authors received payment for the material they contributed, these artificial barriers made no sense for knowledge production. Open Access, on the other hand, did make sense. This is precisely what the BOAI expressed in 2002.
February 23, 2017