Free as in Open Access and Wikipedia

Cross-posted from EFF. 

Between October 20 and 26, EFF is celebrating Open Access Week alongside dozens of organizations from around the world. This is a week to acknowledge the wide-ranging benefits of enabling open access to information and research—as well as exploring the dangerous costs of keeping knowledge locked behind publisher paywalls. We'll be posting on our blog every day about various aspects of the open access movement. Go here to find out how you can take part.

This is a guest post by Yana Welinder, Legal Counsel at the Wikimedia Foundation and Non-Residential Fellow at Stanford CIS. If you have comments on this post, you can contact her on Twitter or her Wikimedia talk page.

Wikipedia and the other Wikimedia sites are closely connected to open access goals of making scholarship freely available and reusable. Consistent with these goals, the Wikimedia sites make information available to Internet users around the world free of charge in hundreds of languages. Wikimedia content can also be reused under its free licenses. The content is complemented by citations to open access scholarship, and the Wikimedia sites play a unique role in making academic learning easily available to the world. As the next generation of scholars embraces open access principles to become a Generation Open, we will move closer to "a world in which every single human being can freely share in the sum of all knowledge."

To write and edit Wikipedia, contributors need to access high quality independent sources. Unfortunately, paywalls and copyright restrictions often prevent the use of academic journals to write Wikipedia articles and enrich them with citations. Citations are particularly important to allow readers to verify Wikipedia articles and learn more about the topic from the underlying sources. Given the importance of open access to Wikipedia, Wikipedia contributors have set up a WikiProject Open Access to increase the use of open-access materials on the Wikimedia sites, improve open access-related articles on Wikipedia, and signal to readers whether sources in Wikipedia articles are open access. Members of WikiProject Open Access have created a video describing how readers can be made aware of open access scholarship on Wikipedia.

Great potential lies in the reciprocal relationship between the open access scholarship that enriches Wikipedia and Wikipedia’s promotion of primary sources. As a secondary source, Wikipedia does not publish ideas or facts that are not supported by reliable and published sources. Wikipedia has tremendous power as a platform for relaying the outcomes of academic study by leading over 400 million monthly visitors to underlying scholarship cited in articles. Just as a traditional encyclopedia would, Wikipedia can make the underlying research easier to find. But unlike a traditional encyclopedia, it also provides free access and reuse to all. In that sense, Wikipedia is an ideal secondary source for open access research.

In light of this, we are thrilled to see Generation Open grow. The Digital Commons Network now boasts 1,109,355 works from 358 institutions. The Directory of Open Access Journals further has over 10,000 journals from 135 countries. Esteemed law journals such as the Harvard Journal of Law and Technology, Berkeley Technology Law Journal, and Michigan Law Review subscribe to the Open Access Law Program, which encourages them to archive their articles under open access principles. But while all these initiatives enable free access to academic scholarship, some of them still provide limited ability to reuse that work falling short of the definition of open access:

[F]ree availability on the public internet, permitting any users to read, download, copy, distribute, print, search, or link to the full texts of these articles, crawl them for indexing, pass them as data to software, or use them for any other lawful purpose, without financial, legal, or technical barriers other than those inseparable from gaining access to the internet itself. The only constraint on reproduction and distribution, and the only role for copyright in this domain, should be to give authors control over the integrity of their work and the right to be properly acknowledged and cited.

Wikipedians are also contributing to the body of published open access scholarship. Earlier this month, four Wikipedians published an article on Dengue fever in Open Medicine (an open access and peer-reviewed journal) based on a Wikipedia article that was collaboratively edited by over 1,300 volunteers and bots. In addition to providing an open access scholarly article on this important topic, this publication validated that Wikipedia's editorial process can produce high quality content outside traditional academia. Many Wikipedia articles incorporate text from openly licensed scholarship and some scholars write and publish openly licensed scholarship specifically to have it reused in Wikipedia articles.

Placing scholarship behind paywalls and copyright restrictions has the effect of relegating new advances in human knowledge to small academic communities. We have previously joined many open access groups to demand that scholarship be not only freely accessible, but also freely reuseable. As more academics allow their work to be shared and used freely, online secondary sources like Wikipedia will play a large role in disseminating the knowledge to more people in new regions and on different devices.


Many thanks to Hilary Richardson and Camille Desai for their help in preparing this post. I would also like to thank Stephen LaPorteManprit BrarDaniel Mietchen, and other members of WikiProject Open Access for their helpful feedback.

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