Ensuring equal quality access to resources

A contribution by Tommaso Fattori:

(version without notes)

“Commons Internet is a medium which can be used to promote free and equal quality access to knowledge and information in an open and democratic way. Institutions and citizens can work together to increase the whole body of knowledge and creativity freely available and usable, through forms which encourage collaboration, co-production and knowledge-sharing, as well as the free availability online of digital content. This means guaranteeing access to knowledge in a way which bypasses the barriers created by market logic and the monetary resources of individuals and institutions: knowledge is augmented as a Commons and as a collective effort.

In the field of scientific knowledge, every producer of knowledge can contribute to this effort: the so-called “green road” consists of self-archiving on the authors’ part of copies of their work (articles, chapters, papers or any other intellectual product) in institutional or subject depositories or simply on their own websites. On the other hand, the phrase “gold road” is used to describe the publication of journals in which the articles are directly and immediately available via open access (the so-called open-access journals). In general, “open access” is the immediate – upon or before publication – online, free availability of research outputs without any of the restrictions on use commonly imposed by publishers’ copyright agreements.

Universities and Research Centres should make university lessons and courses freely available online and downloadable. An important initiative in this direction was taken in the summer of 2012 by the MIT in Boston and by Harvard Univeristy, who have partnered to launch edX, an initiative to offer free online courses worldwide and develop an open source platform to deliver them.

Universities and Research Centres where research receives public funding should require professors and research fellows to make their results available to users, free of charge. Institutional repositories are digital collections of the outputs created within a university or research institution. In most cases repositories are established to provide open access to the institution’s research outputs and some universities have teaching/learning repositories for educational materials.

At the same time, Governments themselves should make open access to publicly funded research mandatory2. The advantages in terms of quality of research resulting from open access are well known: open access moves research along faster.

Another activity which should be encouraged and supported is the collective writing of “open” school and university textbooks and manuals, which is possible through collaborative teaching methodologies: freely downloadable e-books, to which the students themselves can contribute3. The advantage does not lie merely in terms of non-monetary and free access to knowledge but also in the enhanced quality of the content, elaborated through feedback from the students (among other things, online tests can be used again, changed – if the Creative Commons licence allows it – and adapted to different local contexts, etc.). Of course, it is also possible to build up open audio-visual scholastic archives collaboratively.

All these digital tools and material available for free – from repositories accessible to all, to e-books – must not be considered an important free resource only for students or researchers: there is also a considerable advantage anyone can acquire in terms of personal know-how and professional development.

From this angle, there should be public policies supporting and encouraging all forms of “hardware sharing” and in general the forms of sharing applied knowledge that are being developed: fostering free access to the knowledge necessary for material production allows for self-building of useful, and sometimes vital, objects and tools, according to the “do it yourself” principle. The sharing of plans and technical drawings can make it possible to self-build a broad range of tools, from a computer component to a whole agricultural tractor.

Access to knowledge also regards areas such as “open data government”, that is, open access to information and knowledge produced by the public administration, or the experience of “digital civic commons”, collaborative communities which systemize and share online knowledges that would otherwise remain hidden or be lost, often with the aim of resolving problems of public importance or to develop forms of reciprocal help and support.”

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