Generations unite! Open Access can’t fail

November 19, 2013

Yesterday I was at the Berlin 11 satellite conference for students and early-career researchers. It was a privilege to be part of a stellar line-up of speakers, including the likes of SPARC’s Heather Joseph, PLOS’s Cameron Neylon, and eLIFE’s Mark Patterson. But even more than these, there were two people who impressed me so much that I had to give in to my fannish tendencies and have photos taken with them. Here they are.

MikeTaylor-with-JackAndraka2

This is Jack Andraka, who at the age of fifteen invented a new test for pancreatic cancer that is 168 times faster, 1/26000 as expensive and 400 times more sensitive than the current diagnostic tests, and only takes five minutes to run.  Of course he’s grown up a bit since then — he’s sixteen now.

Right at the moment Jack’s not getting much science done because he’s sprinting from meeting to meeting. He came to us in Berlin literally straight from an audience with the Pope. He’s met Barack Obama in the oval office. And one of the main burdens of his talk is that he’s not such an outlier as he appears: there are lots of other brilliant kids out there who are capable of doing similarly groundbreaking work — if only they could get access to the published papers they need. (Jack was lucky: his parents are indulgent, and spent thousands of dollars on paywalled papers for him.)

Someone on Twitter noted that every single photo of Jack seems to show him, and the people he’s with, in thumbs-up pose. It’s true: and that is his infectious positivity at work. It’s energising as well as inspiring to be around him.

(Read Jack’s guest post at PLOS on Why Science Journal Paywalls Have to Go)

Here’s the other photo:

IMG_20131118_202834

This is Bernard Rentier, who is rector of the University of Liège. To put it bluntly, he is the boss of the whole darned university — an academic of the very senior variety that I never meet; and of the vintage that, to put it kindly, can have a tendency to be rather conservative in approach, and cautious about open access.

With Bernard, not a bit of it. He has instituted a superb open-access policy at Liège — one that is now being taken up a model for the whole of Belgium. Whenever members of the Liège faculty apply for anything — office space, promotions, grants, tenure — their case is evaluated by taking into account only publications that have been deposited in the university’s open-access repository, ORBi.

Needless to say, the compliance rate is superb — essentially 100% since the policy came in. As a result, Liège’s work is more widely used, cited, reused, replicated, rebutted and generally put to work. The world benefits, and the university benefits.

Bernard is a spectacular example of someone in a position of great power using that power for good. Meanwhile, at the other end of scale, Jack is someone who — one would have thought — had no power at all. But in part because of work made available through the influence of people like Bernard, it turned out he had the power to make a medical breakthrough.

I came away from the satellite meeting very excited — in fact, by nearly all the presentations and discussions, but most especially by the range represented by Jack and Bernard. People at both ends of their careers; both of them not only promoting open access, but also doing wonderful things with it.

There’s no case against open access, and there never has been. But shifting the inertia of long-established traditions and protocols requires enormous activation energy. With advocates like Jack and Bernard, we’re generating that energy.

Onward and upward!

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One Response to “Generations unite! Open Access can’t fail”


  1. […] three days of open-access talks, though I was only able to be there for the first two. Day one was the satellite conference, aimed at early-career researchers; days two and three were the much larger main conference, […]


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