Open access as humanitarian aid

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From Peter Suber's April 2011 Issue of the SPARC Open Access Newsletter.

On March 11, Japan suffered the largest known earthquake in its history and one of the five largest ever recorded.  The resulting tsunami caused immense damage over 500 square kilometers (193 square miles).  More than 11,800 people are confirmed dead and more than 15,500 still missing.

First things first:  If you're looking for practical information on how to help, or how to cope, see Google's crisis response page and the OLIVE wiki for quake survivors.

Beyond those survival basics, several forms humanitarian assistance take the form of free online access to research:

* Three US organizations created the Emergency Access Initiative (EAI) to provide temporary free online access to toll access (TA) research literature.  The National Library of Medicine (NLM) and National Network of Libraries of Medicine (NN/LM) both support OA.  But the third partner is the Professional/Scholarly Publishing Division of the Association of American Publishers (AAP/PSP), which lobbies against OA policies in the US.  The EAI will provide free online access to "to full-text articles from over 230 biomedical serial titles and over 65 reference books and online databases to healthcare professionals and libraries affected by disasters."  Because the free access is temporary, and limited to those affected by the earthquake and tsunami, it's not OA and the EMI isn't calling it OA.  Nevertheless it lifts access barriers to research.  The free access began on March 14, three days after the earthquake struck, is currently scheduled to end on April 8, 2011.

* Thomson Reuters launched an OA portal of research on the diagnosis and treatment of radiation exposure.

* Elsevier began giving all Japanese IP addresses temporary free online access to the company's "primary online clinical reference tools", MD Consult and First Consult.

* Nature News released an OA special collection of news and opinion on the Japanese earthquake and nuclear crisis.

* ReliefWeb, the UN's OA repository for humanitarian relief, has a section on the Japanese earthquake and tsunami.  Among other content, ReliefWeb harvests from OA journals.  See for example the articles it has harvested from BMC.

* OpenStreetMap is building OA maps of the disaster area to aid rescue and recovery efforts.

* Several initiatives around the world are crowdsourcing OA maps of radiation levels in different parts of the world as a result of the reactor leaks in Japan.

* is a new site crowdsourcing the collection of "reliable data" about radiation levels in Japan.  "Although primarily built to gather data from citizens taking readings on the ground, the site also takes readings from official sources including, an infrastructure platform that gathers community-based environmental data, and Japan's Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology."

* Architecture for Humanity uses CC-licensed architectural plans to assist with disaster reconstruction.

I posted a call on SPARC Open Access Forum (SOAF) for other examples of free online access to research or data --not normally OA-- as humanitarian assistance to Japan.  As I go to press, these are the only examples I know.  If others appear later, please post them to SOAF.

Here's a sad example of an impediment to OA-related humanitarian aid.  The Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) has sensors around the world as part of its mission to detect nuclear tests.  In particular, it has sensors in Japan and throughout the Pacific.  The sensors are picking up radiation leaking from Japan's six damaged nuclear reactors.  The data would be extremely valuable to rescue workers and physicians in Japan, and to policy-makers everywhere thinking about nuclear power.  They would even help calm some exaggerated fears on the west coast of North America.  But according to Nature, "the CTBTO has no mandate for making radionuclide data publicly available for the purposes of monitoring nuclear accidents, because its member states have not yet agreed for it to have this role...."

This is a fixable problem.  Thomson Reuters, Elsevier, and the publishers participating in the Emergency Access Initiative didn't have standing policies to free up articles for humanitarian purposes until they saw the need to do so (often well before the Japanese earthquake), got their acts together, and changed course in time to do some good.  Let's hope it's not too late for the CTBTO to do the same.  Every government participating in CTBTO --nearly every country on Earth-- should help CTBTO reach this decision.


In the face of a disaster like the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, OA research is less urgent than food, clothing, and shelter.  But access to research can be an essential part of rescue and recovery.  To show that, here's a brief history of OA as humanitarian assistance, organized by disaster, starting with the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004.  Because standing OA journals and repositories are available to every disaster-damaged region with internet connectivity, this list focuses on resources that would not otherwise have been OA or not otherwise created at all.  (I maintain an offline list of these resources and would appreciate learning about any that I've missed.)

(1) The earthquake and tsunami in the Indian Ocean, December 26, 2004

The Dutch Royal Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies created Aceh Books, an OA collection of more than 600 books about Aceh, Indonesia.  The books are digital replacements for 400 years' worth of print books about Aceh destroyed by the tsunami.

(2) Hurricane Katrina, August 29, 2005

The US Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) released a collection of 8,000+ OA photographs of Hurricane Katrina and other storms from 1998 to 2008.

OA data from Google Earth aided rescue efforts after Hurricane Katrina.  (The same article shows how Google Earth data also helped with rescue efforts after the October 2005 earthquake in Pakistan.)

(3) The earthquake in Haiti, January 12, 2010

The Emergency Access Initiative (noted above in connection with the Japanese earthquake) originally launched to offer assistance after the Haitian earthquake.

The Open Street Map community provided OA data and tools to assist rescue workers in Haiti.

A new, free iPhone app offered rescue workers the most up-to-date maps and geodata of Haiti, including maps and data from the Open Street Map project.

Cameron Parkins described two Haitian relief projects using CC licenses to share information with all who might need it.

(4) The earthquake in Chile, February 27, 2010

Chilean seismologists shared data on the earthquake which hit central Chile on February 27, 2010

The UK Geological Society released a collection of OA research on Chilean tectonics.

Students at Columbia University's School of Public Administration (SIPA) organized "crisis information" gathered from text messages, emails, and Twitter feeds, to assist with humanitarian aid to victims of the Chilean earthquake.

(5) The Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, April 20, 2010

The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) launched the Deepwater Horizon Library, an OA collection of "maps, wildlife reports, scientific reports and other previously released public information used by emergency responders, fishermen, mariners and local officials during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill."

The US Environmental Law Institute launched the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill Litigation Database to track ongoing legal cases related to oil spill.

The US National Library of Medicine added data on crude oil and dispersants to its OA Hazardous Substances Data Bank.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology provided OA information on 22 bird species "at risk from the BP oil spill".

The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) launched a website of OA, near-real-time information on the response to the Deepwater Horizon BP oil spill.  The site gathered data from all US federal agencies working on the disaster.

Thirteen scientific societies wrote a joint open letter to the US Senate calling for public funds for research on the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, on the ground that private funds from BP come with unacceptable copyright restrictions which limit public access to the research.

(6) The earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand, February 22, 2011

Disaster Medicine and Public Health Preparedness (DMPHP) published four OA articles on the Haitian earthquake of January 2010 to assist with disaster relief for the New Zealand earthquake.  DMPHP is a TA journal published by the American Medical Association (AMA).

* To round out this skeleton history, here are some examples of OA-related relief for what could be called generalized emergency rather than particular disasters. 

The American Association for the Advancement of Science formerly had a project called Science & Intellectual Property in the Public Interest (SIPPI), laid down in March 2007, and SIPPI had a Humanitarian Licensing Working Group which issued a July 2004 report, Exploring a Humanitarian Use Exemption to Intellectual Property Protections.

Amanda L. Brewster, Audrey R. Chapman, Stephen A. Hansen, Facilitating Humanitarian Access to Pharmaceutical and Agricultural Innovation, Innovation Strategy Today, 1, 3 (2005).

Edward Mills,  Sharing evidence on humanitarian relief, BMJ, December 22, 2005. An editorial arguing that an OA database of humanitarian efforts would itself make those efforts more effective and efficient.

In 2007, the Japanese government called for public comments on a proposed humanitarian exception to Japanese copyright law.  The new exception would allow free copying and distribution of medical journal articles in cases of medical emergency.  Most TA publishers submitting comments opposed the idea, including some who participate in the Emergency Access Initiative (see Japan and Haiti, above).  If anyone knows what happened to this proposal, I'd love to hear the details.  For example, if it passed, is it being used in the present disaster?  If it didn't pass, is it being reconsidered now?

In 2008, Elisa Mason found that about half the journals in the field of forced migration were OA to some degree or another.

A May 2009 report from the Institute of Medicine (IOM) of the US National Academy of Sciences (NAS) argued that the US "humanitarian obligation" to global health should include green OA mandates for medical research.  The report was co-sponsored by the Gates Foundation, Burroughs Wellcome Fund, Google Foundation, Merck Company Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation, US Department of Health and Human Services, US Department of Homeland Security, and US Department of State.

In February 2011, the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) agreed on a global standard for publishing aid data.  The idea is that data released under the standard will allow "donors and recipients [to] coordinate their plans and complement the activities of others, reducing duplication and waste...."

Universities Allied for Essential Medicines has been working on humanitarian licensing for years.  Its document archive on the topic has docs from just last month.

Also see the many items in the Open Access News archive on efforts to provide OA to research and data on avian flu, in anticipation of a global pandemic.


I'm not going to argue that TA publishers who make temporary sacrifices to provide OA during emergencies should make permanent sacrifices to provide OA all the time.  I understand the distinction between emergencies and routine circumstances.  You probably give more to the Red Cross after a disaster than you could afford to give every month.  I do, and I have an answer ready for anyone who wants me to give the same amount every month.

But but but but.  There's more to say on this subject.  Here are four buts.

* But #1:  Some publishers do provide OA all the time, rain or shine.  More than 6,300 peer-reviewed journals, about one-quarter of today's total, provide OA to all their articles.  At least two different business models for OA journals are making profits or surpluses for the publishers using them.  Converting to OA is not impossible.  For publishers making double-digit profit margins, the shift would mean accepting less.  For publishers with more modest margins, it would mean changing business models, a non-trivial undertaking.  However, publishers in this category should look at companies that have made the move.  Hindawi is a profitable OA publisher which finished the job of converting all its peer-reviewed journals to OA in 2007.  Looking back on several years of rapidly growing submissions, its co-founder and CEO said in 2010, "It is clear now more than ever that our open access conversion...was the best management decision we have taken...."

When Springer bought BioMed Central, Derk Haank, Springer CEO, said that OA is "a sustainable part of STM publishing, and not an ideological crusade."

Publishers contemplating the shift should also consider the evidence that it increases submissions and citations to the journal, even apart from increasing the productivity of researchers.  If you were *thinking* about giving more to the Red Cross every month, at least you'd want the plus column to include the benefits to yourself as well as the benefits to others.  With all respect to the Red Cross, the narrow self-interest of donating to the Red Cross is less than the narrow self-interest of shifting to OA, especially for smaller publishers excluded from big deals and facing a losing battle for shrinking library budgets under the subscription model.  Reread Ahmed Hindawi's statement from 2010 that converting to OA was the best management decision his company ever made.  That's not the way CEOs talk about upping their charitable donations. 

* But #2:  Most publishers allow author-initiated green OA.  The percentage of surveyed publishers who do has declined as SHERPA/RoMEO surveys more publishers.  But today SHERPA has surveyed more than 940 publishers, and reports that 55% allow postprint archiving, and 63% allow either preprint or postprint archiving.

Just as some gold OA publishers are making profits, some green TA publishers (TA publishers allowing green OA) are making very large profits.  Elsevier falls into this category, for example, and it places no embargo on green OA.  Permitting green OA is not impossible and it's not even a drag on revenue or profits.  Publishers not ready to convert to gold OA should at least permit green OA.  It doesn't require a financial hit and it doesn't require an emergency.  And it would serve research (more in But #4 below), a major factor for non-profit society publishers committed to serving research more than serving stockholders.

The Nature Publishing Group puts a six month embargo on green OA, but has "actively encourag[ed] self-archiving since 2005" and reports that "to date, [it has] found author self-archiving compatible with subscription business models."

* But #3:  The publishers already permitting green OA include the largest ones and most of the smaller ones.  We still need to move the percentage of green TA publishers from 63% to something closer to 100%.  But at the same time, we need to move the percentage of authors who take advantage of existing permissions from 15% to something closer to 100%.  I'm looking at you, researchers.  More often than not, you already have permission from your TA publishers to self-archive your work, and more often than not you don't take advantage of it.  In that sense, the bulk of the OA shortfall can be traced to author inertia (preoccupation, unfamiliarity, misunderstanding) rather than publisher opposition. 

There are three solutions to this problem.  First, make green OA as familiar as gold OA to publishing researchers.  This is a long slow process.  I believe the curve is moving up, but the slope is shallow.  Most researchers still don't understand their green OA options, and don't realize that publishing in a TA journal is usually compatible with depositing the peer-reviewed manuscript in an OA repository.  The second and third solutions are funder and university OA mandates.  The growth of OA depends on author decisions, but funders and universities are in an unmatched position to influence author decisions.  If you regret the slow growth of OA, in routine circumstances as well as emergencies, then here's a simple strategy:  make your own work OA; educate your colleagues about their OA options, especially their green OA options; and work for a strong OA policy at your institution.

(For what counts as a strong OA policy at funders and universities, see my article from February 2009.)

* But #4:  Lifting access barriers in an emergency is a public acknowledgment that research is more useful when OA than when TA.  It confirms what I've called the OA principle:  the more knowledge matters, the more OA to that knowledge matters. 

This proposition doesn't compare one set of OA articles with a control group of TA articles that might or might not be relevantly similar.  We're talking about one and the same set of articles and data, without any "self-selection bias" or any of the other alleged confounders complicating the analysis of the citation impact advantage.  Research is more useful after we lift access barriers than it was before, and publishers who lift access barriers in emergencies are admitting that.  

This is the heart of the case for OA.  It makes research more useful.  When research is gratis OA, it reaches more people who can make use of it.  Users needn't go without, and needn't rely on slow, unscalable methods like interlibrary loan and emails to authors.  When research is libre OA, it can be used and reused in ways that exceed fair use.  Users needn't slow down to ask for permission, risk proceeding without it, or err on the side of non-use. 

Publishers may have financial reasons not to provide OA themselves.  But reasons to stop short of gold OA aren't reasons to stop short of green OA.  In any case, arguments against permitting or mandating green OA must be weighed against the fundamental background acknowledgement that OA research is more useful than TA research.  My hope is that every publisher will remember this acknowledgement when considering or reconsidering its access policies.  We need research to be as useful as possible every day, in routine circumstances, and not just in times of disaster.  The "we" here are not just researchers but everyone who depends on research.  The stakes are not always elevated by earthquake and tsunami, but they are elevated by illness, climate change, environmental degradation, species extinction, unsafe technologies, unsolved problems, and uninformed policies.

In a different context in 2009, I put the question this way:  "Do we only want to solve the [access problem] in matters of life and death, or might we also want solve it in matters of scholarship, research, art, culture, and education?"

The question isn't whether we could give as much to the Red Cross every month as we manage to give in the aftermath of a humanitarian disaster.  The question is whether we could make what we already do just as useful as emergency-level donations to the Red Cross. 

When I give to the Red Cross in an emergency, I don't feel committed to do it every month.  But I do feel blocked from arguing that donations to the Red Cross don't really help.  Making that claim would be factually incorrect and personally inconsistent.  Likewise publishers who provide free online access in an emergency are blocked from arguing that increased access isn't necessary or doesn't help, or that everyone who needs access already has access.  Premise 1:  There is an access problem.  Working on solutions to this problem is not incendiary, but humanitarian in the broadest sense. 

* Postscript.  To keep this article a manageable size, I've tried to distinguish humanitarian relief in the wake of disasters from humanitarian relief to developing countries in the face of more chronic conditions, although I admit that the border between them is fuzzy.  Hence, I haven't even tried to list the very many OA initiatives at work in the global south, day in and day out.  But for lists of those initiatives, see:

EBSCO and Hasselt University's Open Science Directory

Ann Okerson's list of Developing Nations Initiatives (not updated since 2007)

The "oa.south" tag library from the OA Tracking Project (active since April 2009) Navigatio