Opening Access, Closing the Knowledge Gap? The Right to Science and States’ Obligations to Regulate the Global Science System in the Digital Age
Posted: 25 Nov 2020 Last revised: 3 Feb 2021
Date Written: November 24, 2020
The Corona pandemic as never before shows the advantages of Open Science and Open Access (OA), understood as the unrestricted access to research data, software and publications over the internet. It might prove to become the final push for the long-predicted “access revolution” in the academic publishing system, completing the paradigm shift from a system based on subscriptions to one in which scientific publications are freely available for readers over the internet. This paradigm shift is already underway, with major research funding organisations at the national and international levels massively supporting it. The call for OA has now also been taken up by the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which in its recent General Comment No. 25 on the so-called “right to science” under Art. 15(1)(b) of the ICESCR explicitly asks states to promote OA. Following the line of argument of OA proponents, the Committee finds that OA is beneficial to scientific progress and furthermore a tool to bridge the “knowledge gap”. The aim of this paper is to examine the GC and its implications for the global academic publishing system in the digital age. Analysing and critically assessing the GC, which highlights that “benefitting” from science includes access to science as such and not only to its material outcomes, the paper argues that the added value of the GC, and indeed the independent meaning of the right to science which so far primarily was seen as an enabler for other social rights, lies in this dimension. However, when it comes to OA, the GC is not nuanced enough. Without closer scrutiny, it assumes that OA is generally beneficial to the right to science. This risks to give the human rights blessing to practices deemed highly problematic by many: The OA model which is about to become the global standard risks to benefit the already privileged, namely researchers and publishers in the Global North, further sidelining those at the margins. Rather than narrowing existing gaps, it risks to of further deepen them. A human rights approach to science, the paper concludes, needs to address these global connections and implications rather than to overlook them.
Keywords: right to science, Open Access, Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, knowledge divide, epistemic justice, human rights crisis
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