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PLoS Talks At Harvard: Human Rights, Social Sciences

I was kindly invited to give two talks about open access at Harvard University, and both are now available online.

The first invitation came from the François-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights, based at Harvard School of Public Health (by the way, François-Xavier Bagnoud was a young pilot who flew humanitarian missions and who died in a helicopter accident). My talk was called "Excluding the poor from accessing the biomedical literature: a rights violation that impedes global health." The school has now posted a video on its website.

In this talk, I discussed several longstanding and recent international declarations that enshrine access to scientific and medical knowledge as a human right.

There are two major ways in which these declarations frame the right to access knowledge. Several global, regional, and national declarations confirm that all people should have the right to seek and access knowledge without political barriers. In other words, knowledge should be “free”, where free has the same meaning as “free speech” (i.e. freedom from political barriers).

But having the political freedom to access a scientific or medical research paper is meaningless if the cost to download it puts it out of the reach of most of society. And so a series of more recent international charters and treaties enshrine the right of people to read research results without economic barriers.

The second invitation came from the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School. I called this talk "Opening Up to Open Access: What Can Other Disciplines Learn from the Sciences?" An audio podcast is now available.

It was fascinating preparing this talk, because it gave me the opportunity to find out what is happening in the movement to make social science and humanities research open access.

In an article called Beyond Impact: Open Access in the Humanities, Sigi Jottkandt summed up the situation as follows: "Compared with its stunning success in the sciences, the uptake of open access publishing has been much slower in the humanities and it continues to meet with resistance by many scholars."

At the Berkman Center, I discussed some of the reasons for this slow uptake, and also gave some beacons of hope, such as the Creative Commons Open Access Law Program, which now has 34 law journals on board, and Open Humanities Press, a "new international initiative being launched by academics, journal editors and librarians to promote the adoption of open access publishing in the humanities."

Social science journals have a huge amount to gain from adopting open access models. But don’t just take it from me—take it from Heidi Bond, Executive Articles Editor at the Michigan Law Review, one of the signatories to the Creative Commons Open Access Law Program. In the press release announcing the program, she said: “Open access policies make for happier authors and better scholarship. After all, law review articles are like software: they’re best when they’re free for others to learn from and build on.”

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