Bulletin of the World Health Organization

Collaboration, not confrontation

T Scott Plutchak a

a. Lister Hill Library of the Health Sciences, University of Alabama at Birmingham, 1700 University Blvd, Birmingham, AL, United States of America.

Correspondence to T Scott Plutchak (e-mail: tscott@uab.edu).

Bulletin of the World Health Organization 2009;87:636-637. doi: 10.2471/BLT.09.069252

The potential social benefits of open access (however it is defined) appear to be significant. More research information is readily available than ever before and there is every indication that the amount will increase. There is a rising tide of enthusiasm for institutional, funder or government mandates that will result in some measure of increased free access, although relatively few of these initiatives actually make the final versions of peer-reviewed articles freely available immediately upon publication. Perhaps in the same way that we have been willing to sacrifice the clarity and reliability of the old landline telephones for the ease and ubiquity of cell phones, we will find that the power of unedited manuscript articles is a sufficient trade-off. It is still too early to tell what the unintended consequences of this focus on open-access mandates might be.

Unfortunately, what has passed for discussion among the interested parties in this arena has been marked with rancour, accusation and a dedicated unwillingness to consider whether the objections and issues of those on the “other side” (whichever side that is) have any merit at all. Open access advocates, convinced of the moral superiority of their position, have turned to legislative mandates, such as the public access policy of the National Institutes of Health,1 as a way of forcing a degree of open access. This has caused many publishers to dig in their heels, claiming the ultimate destruction of publishing as we know it, as they try to retain some measure of control in the face of withering scorn and vituperation.2

The fighting wastes a tremendous amount of valuable energy. Much of the energy on both sides of the debate over the past year has focused on arguments for or against the “Fair copyright in research works act,” which was introduced in the Congress of the United States of America in September 2008.3 One might be forgiven for wondering how much further advanced we might be in truly taking advantage of the opportunities before us if we had figured out a way to get the stakeholders together productively rather than allowing emotion, frustration over a history of high journal prices, defensiveness and a penchant for hyperbolic rhetoric to turn the discussion into a fight among advocates who have already drawn their lines in the sand.

The Chicago Collaborative, still in its early stages, is one attempt to escape this cycle of contentious advocacy.4 Initiated by a taskforce of the Association of Academic Health Sciences Libraries, the founding members of the Collaborative include representatives from several of the major scientific, technical and medical publishing associations, as well as the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors and the American Association of Medical Colleges. They are united in their belief that a robust scholarly communication future can only be created when all of the stakeholders work together in a collaborative fashion, rather than in the confrontational mode that has characterized the open access debates.

Making the results of scientific research more readily available throughout the world is clearly a noble and important goal. Building a sustainable system of scholarly communication that can meet that goal will require reasoned engagement, rather than slogans and banner waving. ■

Competing interests: None declared.