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Isn't Our Research Already Free? Why Open Access Matters for the Social Sector & How You Can Get Involved

October 30, 2015

Open_repositoryLast week individuals and organizations across the globe, including Foundation Center's own open access repository IssueLab, celebrated Open Access Week. This annual event/celebration puts the spotlight on a concept that is of terrific importance to those of us who produce knowledge but also to those of us who rely on it to do our jobs.

According to the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC): " 'Open Access' to information —  the free, immediate, online access to the results of scholarly research, and the right to use and re-use those results as you need  —  has the power to transform the way research and scientific inquiry are conducted. It has direct and widespread implications for academia, medicine, science, industry, and for society as a whole."

Many of us who work in the social sector — who fund, produce, use, share, and safeguard research and knowledge about social issues and social change  —  already know that open access is incredibly important. Why? Because we live that last bit about "direct and widespread implications...for society as a whole." We're the people who grapple with social issues that impact all of us, all over the globe, every day. Through our work we research, implement, and share strategies that attempt to eradicate poverty, eliminate hunger, conquer inequality, abolish injustice, and so much more.

Free and immediate access to information about social change strategies, and unfettered use and reuse of the results of that information, just makes sense. It lines up with why we produce knowledge in the first place: to build awareness about tough social problems and the creative and persistent solutions that are making the world a better place.

In the spirit of both Open Access Week and of the purpose and principles that drive us to produce knowledge in the first place, we invite our social sector colleagues to learn more about what open knowledge sharing means for our sector. To get you started, we'll explore two concepts you can implement today: open licensing and open repositories.

Open Licensing

In order to tackle issues as broad and far-reaching as eliminating hunger or conquering inequality, it is imperative that we work together and share what we've learned. Part of the idea behind open access is that work should be shared in a way that can be reused and redistributed, under clearly stated terms that permit these activities. Open licensing allows us to do just that.

"By using open licenses, publishing organizations across the world are able to specify how they wish their work to be attributed and re-purposed rather than defaulting to an 'all rights reserved' mentality that is often misaligned with the purpose and intent of social sector research...." ("Grey Matter(s): Embracing the Publisher Within")

Through our work at IssueLab, we’ve been speaking to social sector organizations large and small for almost a decade now and have heard a number of common concerns that too often keep organizations in an "all rights reserved" state of mind. Mistakenly, many organizations see restricting intellectual property rights as the only way to protect the value of their knowledge products, which serve as a kind of currency in a knowledge-intensive sector, while other organizations view users' requests for permission as a kind of user engagement or simply don't see a clear benefit to the extra work involved in altering their communications and knowledge sharing practices.

But here's the good news, openly licensing your work doesn't mean losing control of it or losing out on an opportunity to engage with users. Actually, it means that your organization can clearly indicate which rights you would like to reserve while at the same time sharing it as broadly as possible with people who value it!

By answering just a few questions about how you would or wouldn't like your knowledge products to be used, creative commons' license chooser can help you select a tailored legal license for your work. With a few simple steps, open licensing allows you to proactively empower users to share your work and build off of your ideas in a way that also respects your rights and authorship.

Open Repositories

Another important aspect of open access is ensuring that the work we fund and produce can be freely and immediately obtained online, without barriers such as subscription fees or institutional paywalls. But in order for foundations and nonprofits to effectively share their knowledge, we first have to make it possible for other practitioners, funders, and researchers to find it! That's why we're happy to report that there is a growing movement to collect scientific research in open access repositories (PubMed and PLoS are just two examples) so that research can be immediately obtained and built upon.

At IssueLab, we’re proud to follow in these footsteps by collecting social sector literature — the reports, white papers, evaluations, case studies, and issue briefs produced by and for social changemakers — in a free, publicly available, digital archive and repository.

But open repositories aren't just like any other repository. Being "open" means a few really important things to both the producers of knowledge who house their work in these repositories and to those who rely on the knowledge they find there:

1. Open archives and repositories, like IssueLab, allow for ongoing, free, and open access to publications and data — not just by human beings accessing websites but also by machines that can mine and share data between repositories. This interoperability, where one repository can harvest data from another, opens the door to exchanging and sharing knowledge across a distributed system of entry points that we as funders and producers may not even know about.

2. Posting a PDF on your website is a great start to sharing your work, but we are all probably familiar with "link rot" — the inevitable broken links and 404 errors that result when, for example, content is moved around due to a website redesign. By contributing your work to an open repository like IssueLab, you are ensuring its long-term discoverability and accessibility — for free.

Imagine what we can learn when we bring together knowledge from different times, organizations, and fields of practice and do it in a way that makes that knowledge easily accessible and easily shareable, by both humans and machines!

Intrigued enough by open access to learn more about how it fits into your organization's larger knowledge sharing strategy? Great! Take open access out for a spin by adding a copy of your nonprofit or foundation's research to IssueLab! Sign up for a free account and start sharing with us today!

Gabriela Fitz is director of Knowledge Management Initiatives at Foundation Center. Lisa Brooks is the center's director of Knowledge Management Systems. And Maggie Lee is an IssueLab Specialist at the center.

For more on open repositories, as well as other open publishing best practices for the social sector, see "Grey Matter(s): Embracing the Publisher Within," a free, open access article written by Foundation Center's Lisa Brooks and Gabriela Fitz published in the June 2015 issue of Foundation Review.


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