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Open access, the new paradigm for progress

Open books 
In the framework of the international week of open access, Sardegna Ricerche and Cagliari University organised on Thursday 25 October in Cagliari a conference entitled "Il marchio della scientificità – Pubblicazioni scientifiche ed accesso aperto alla conoscenza" (The Hallmark of Scientificity – Scientific publications and open access to knowledge). A high-profile guest speaker was Jean-Claude Guédon, a teacher in the Department of Comparative Literature of Montreal University and a member of the open access movement.

The choice of title for the conference, "The Hallmark of Scientificity", sums up in a nutshell the theme and purpose of the meeting. The organisers' choice fell on this title after looking back at the main milestones from the start of human history to the present day. The first consideration was that when the first main shift from oral culture to manuscript occurred, written texts were looked on with suspicion and fear, because they promoted the democratisation of knowledge. On the other hand, at the time of the printing press revolution unleashed by Gutenberg, the fear was that printers might alter the truth of texts. Today, in the midst of the digital revolution, many authors are reluctant to publish their papers on portals other than those controlled by the large oligopolistic publishers, as they are afraid that their research might be looked down on as being of inferior quality. Indeed, just a handful of publishers (journals with a high impact factor) provide the hallmark of scientificity.

The conference addressed this issue by focusing on open access, seen as the alternative to the current paradigm in the world of scientific publishing. The open access movement started up in academic circles in the early 1990s, with the aim of granting free access to the results of research, overcoming the barriers of traditional licences and exploiting the potential offered by the Internet. Among the many, significant milestones in the history of the open access movement, one key moment was the conference entitled "Open Access to Knowledge in the Sciences and Humanities" held in Berlin in 2003. On that occasion, the Berlin Declaration was signed by 245 international institutions. The Declaration identifies the internet as the most efficient tool for effective dissemination of the results of research to foster the free international sharing of data.

After that watershed event, the open access movement rapidly gained momentum, and soon gained the acceptance even of some of the world's main governments. For instance, in April 2012 British minister David Willetts announced the government's new policy of requiring all research results relying on public funding to be open access. In May 2012 the first communications were published on the new Horizon 2020 Community programme which will also be based on an open access policy for all scientific publications funded by the programme.

In an international system where scientific journals function as platforms controlling access to science, the open access movement is a major engine of change and an antidote to the current system governing scientific research, which many have criticised as being self-referential. Open access exploits the functions offered by the Internet to give unrestricted online access to published research thanks to the authors' consent, doing away with the subscription requirements of traditional licences. Open access to information ensures sharing of and quicker advances in knowledge: a freely downloadable article will be read a greater number of times, hence will have more citations.

Thus, Open Access generates multiple benefits: it gives more visibility to authors and it gives researchers easier, free access to research data and results. The open access concept rests on the fundamental conviction that knowledge is a common asset, which should be shared and made accessible. Indeed, for the open access movement, disseminating knowledge means gathering knowledge. That is why open access is a fundamental principle for the advancement of science and technology and internet is the tool making it possible.

Sara Palmas