Bill and Melin­da Gates want aca­d­e­m­ic research to be free for all. They feel so strong­ly about it that The Gates Foun­da­tion (@gatesfoundation), which report­ed­ly spends $900 mil­lion per year on sci­en­tif­ic research, will (begin­ning in two years) only fund research that pub­lish­es its reports in a way that any­one can access them with­out charge.

All of this is detailed in an inter­est­ing Vox arti­cle [link] by Susan­nah Locke (@susannahlocke) that lays out the prob­lems this new Gates’ pol­i­cy cre­ates: “Researchers gen­er­al­ly want their papers to be read by as many peo­ple as pos­si­ble. But the jour­nals that pub­lish those papers are, in many cas­es, for-prof­it insti­tu­tions — and they pre­fer charg­ing for access.”

Locke points out that this new point of view by the Gates is con­gru­ent with the over­all “Open Access” (OA) move­ment, which you can read about on Wikipedia [link] or via this his­to­ry of OA [link].

Free Access

Aca­d­e­m­ic research is often derid­ed as use­less, espe­cial­ly by those who oper­ate a busi­ness. Aca­d­e­mics are often the first to admit the dubi­ous val­ue of some research. About a year ago, Shuqing Luo of the Nation­al Uni­ver­si­ty of Sin­ga­pore posed a ques­tion online: “How does aca­d­e­m­ic research increase the rel­e­vance and cre­ate val­ue in busi­ness­es and edu­ca­tion?” [link] There were numer­ous respons­es. Here’s what Hak Choi said:

I like your ques­tion, and I don’t think we aca­d­e­mics have an answer to it. That is, we do not cre­ate any val­ue to the prac­ti­tion­ers. More than that, we aca­d­e­mics dis­agree with each oth­er all the times. I, for one, total­ly dis­agree with the cur­rent eco­nom­ics teach­ing. Please see my Ama­zon book “Eco­nom­ics in Deep Trou­ble”. But, hav­ing said that, that is the process of find­ing the truth, isn’t it?

Yet, the poten­tial com­mer­i­cal val­ue of some research is with­out doubt. Which may be why (in one study), as Locke reports, less than five per cent of the med­ical research pub­lished between 1998 – 2006 was avail­able for free.

This trend toward open access demands that you ask your­self five ques­tions.

  • Are you focus­ing on tech­nol­o­gy or its impact? As tech­nol­o­gy changes, so, too, do the rules of engage­ment. New infor­ma­tion can be shared with the world in sec­onds. Thus, many now expect new infor­ma­tion to be shared in sec­onds. With­out charge. So, while many lead­ers (includ­ing aca­d­e­m­ic lead­ers!) focus only on the mar­vel of new tech­nol­o­gy, they should be ask­ing what expec­ta­tions are grow­ing as a result of that tech­nol­o­gy.
  • How open are you will­ing to be? “Open access” is an irre­versible trend. What are you doing to adapt and get out in front of “open” in your field/industry/sector?
  • Are you will­ing to be held account­able for your thoughts and actions? With open­ness comes account­abil­i­ty — when the world can see what you are up to, you become much, much more account­able to oth­er (all) stake­hold­ers, and that mat­ters.
  • If infor­ma­tion is your busi­ness, do you have a viable future? If mak­ing mon­ey from a con­tent pay­wall is your busi­ness mod­el (espe­cial­ly con­tent gen­er­at­ed at some­one else’s expense), you best get your think­ing cap on ASAP and bring some for­ward think­ing to your organ­i­sa­tion about the future of your rev­enue streams.
  • Do you real­ly under­stand the future of the Inter­net? The promise of the Inter­net to bring infor­ma­tion rapid­ly and freely to the world is upon us. Yet, in Davos this week, Google’s exec­u­tive chair­man, Eric Schmidt, said that the Inter­net as we know it will like­ly dis­ap­pear, and soon. Accord­ing to CNBC, Schmidt said, “There will be so many IP address­es, so many devices, sen­sors, things that you are wear­ing, things that you are inter­act­ing with that you won’t even sense it; it will be part of your pres­ence all the time.” [link] Just where do you and your firm fit into this all-data-all-the-time world?

The Gates Foun­da­tion (and oth­er for­ward look­ing phil­an­thropists) are (and have been) reshap­ing the land­scape of giv­ing by apply­ing trans­paren­cy and account­abil­i­ty to the out­comes of their invest­ed cap­i­tal. Their posi­tion regard­ing aca­d­e­m­ic research birthed under the aus­pices of their fund­ing is this: such new think­ing must be born free.

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