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What do we mean by “free” access to data?

Thomas Jefferson said:

“If nature has made any one thing less susceptible than all others of exclusive property, it is the action of the thinking power called an idea.” And also –as noted in a previous blog — “The field of knowledge is the common property of all mankind.”

A century or so later US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis (in the 1918 decision, International News Service v. Associated Press] wrote: “…the general rule of law is, that the noblest of human productions—knowledge, truths ascertained, conceptions, and ideas—became, after voluntary communication to others, free as the air to common use.” “Information wants to be free…” (while also noting that information is “expensive” creating an inevitable tension…)

When we call for “free” access to knowledge resources (used here to stand for data, information and knowledge [for some working definitions SEE: Moritz, Building the Biodiversity Commons Appendix 3 http://www.dlib.org/dlib/june02/moritz/06moritz.html ] ), we are saying that access to knowledge should not be a privilege with access granted only to those that can afford the current market price. Knowledge should not be placed behind “pay walls”. To assert this right to free access is to urge that as a national and global community our common welfare demands the free access to knowledge.

The creation of mechanisms of impedance to the free flow of knowledge has tremendous societal costs. Consider the “transaction costs” entailed every time any writer or researcher must simply contact an author or publisher for permission to use any resource. (I estimate that at the American Museum of Natural History, early in the last decade, we invested about $25,000 just to perform due diligence to secure our right to freely disseminate our own scientific publications.) Consider the transaction costs implied by the “inter-library loan” industry?

Add to transaction costs the possibility that additional charges may be assessed before an article can be actually used. As an independent researcher, without a current institutional base, I was forced to pay Nature/ MacMillan $32 US for access to the “Commonwealth of Science”(1941) article cited in a previous blog. Could I have found ways to circumvent? Yes, of course, that is hardly the point — I intend to act in good faith as do most people.) Consider the plight of any teacher ambitious enough to seek use of original source materials – or of any public school student or parent for that matter… Consider costs associated with health care information…?

Having asserted this right to access we are obliged to address the question of cost and of fair compensation for the creation of knowledge. Since the era of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher the Anglo-American polity has been in a kind of thrall – a few years ago when I proposed an alternative system of public compensation for knowledge creation – a colleague – very highly place in a professional scientific society asked me with incredulity – “you mean pay for it with taxes”?

Well, yes.

It has become almost an a priori article of faith that public investment is somehow bad (except, I can not help adding, when required to bail out major financial institutions and insure exorbitant bonuses for financial executives).

Market fundamentalists (and “casino economists”! SEE: JM Keynes), notwithstanding, the United States has always depended upon public investment to insure the viability of our economy. Whether by investment in postal service, energy, public schools/libraries/museums, the Interstate Highway system, the National Science Foundation or the Internet, it has been public investment that has created the infrastructure for our economic success and for innovation. And it has been the economic opportunities created for individuals by public investment that have continued to draw to our shores the ambitious and the energetic, the innovative and the productive. It is the rich diversity of America’s population that is our greatest asset and that holds our greatest hope for meeting 21st Century challenges.

Freeing “government information” is a fine starting point but all knowledge must be free…

I believe that we need an Andrew Carnegie for the 21st Century – assets that have been locked away behind pay walls should be placed in the public domain. And we need new paradigms that sustainably support and fairly compensate research and intellectual work but require release of knowledge products for free public use. (The open access publishing model suggests one such strategy…)

Next, “open”? And effective?

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