My conversion to the open scholar cause

Science fundamentally depends on the communication and spread of ideas, and the ubiquitous nature of the web has opened a world of possibilities for how this happens. Despite problems caused by the clash of older publishing mentalities with the natural openness of the web and the ease of distribution therein, the topic of open access/scholarship is gaining significant traction and support among researchers.

At Georgia Tech, all theses become openly available worldwide upon completion via the SMARTech repository, except for rare cases where works can be withheld from circulation for up to one year. This repository also allows the dissemination of support files such a simulation code. This was my first exposure to academic culture and the utility of this policy persuaded me that surely this must be universally practiced (wrong!).

But early in my PhD something happened that fully sold me to the cause.

In the course of my literature review, I encountered the work of a then post-doc from a prominent university in Australia who had apparently studied a topic awfully close to mine, as far as I could tell from the title and abstract of his thesis. He listed ten or so submitted papers, none of which were in print, and the catalog entry for his thesis on the library website indicated it was neither available for download nor loan. I had to find out how much my research idea overlapped with his work.

I emailed the author. No response.

I emailed his advisor. His response: write the post-doc and ask him.

I emailed the author again and waited. A few weeks later, I received the following email from him (which I edited to protect his privacy):

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Thanks for your interest in my work on “[edited]” done at University of [edited] in 2005. I am pleased that more than 10 people worldwide have been interested in this work so far.

I am happy to assist you in your research and would like to advise you that I have published most of this work in a book (in English) entitled “[edited]” by VDM Verlag Pub. Co. in 384pp; ISBN: [edited]. Please check the following websites for more information.

Alternatively, if you search on Google, you can find the nearest place to order this book.

With the best wishes, [edited]

Dr. [edited],PhD,MIEAust,CPEng, RPEQ, NPER, MIIFC

I went to the website. The price of the book? $200 (USD)

Now, I am a relatively laid back guy but this was enough to push me over the edge. It’s beyond unacceptable in my mind to not assist a fellow graduate student, particularly one wanting to work in a similar area and potentially build on your work. Furthermore, to try to make $200 from a graduate student (who earns almost nothing) is the most uncollegial demonstration I have ever encountered to date.

[Aside: He says 10 people worldwide have contacted him about his work. My master’s thesis which was openly published has been downloaded over 1000 times, last I checked, if that says anything about open access.]

Despite my indignation, I could not ignore this work and paid out of my own pocket for the document. Several weeks later, I received the book and read it, discovering that the abstract significantly overstated his advances in the particular area I was interested in. In fact, it appeared the entire thing I needed was an afterthought chapter at the end and not even a major focus of his research. It’s so irrelevant to my work that it doesn’t even warrant a citation in my literature review. The result? A waste of money and effort that could have been avoided by a more open-minded perspective on the part of this other researcher.

This experience improved me by way of two resolutions:

First, to make any academic work I produce as openly available as possible. This is part of why I created this website. If you are looking for something and can’t find it on this website, email me and the requested pdf will be attached to my response.

Second, to do good to any person seeking out my professional help. This doesn’t mean every inquiry becomes my top priority, but it means that I if someone believes I can help them, I will provide the help if I can, or attempt to direct them to a source I believe will advance them.

In the coming months, I intend to write about the practical outworking of open scholarship for engineering graduate students as well as the ways I believe this will benefit both my work and the greater field.

For further reading, I suggest a visit to Daniel Lemire’s blog, which I have read for a while now and has given me much fuel for thought on this topic including this post, this post, and this post. There is also a wealth of great content on the topic by Stevan Harnad (author of the Subversive Proposal) and Gideon Burton.