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Open Access Talk July 2013


Universities Serving Society: Open Access and Humanity's Majestic Quest

“The human question is this: Why do we share? And the answer is because we are human! We have a common purpose, needs, challenges and asymmetrical distribution of knowledge and skills. We have humanity, empathy, justice, consciousness. And so we share.”

These were the words of the University of the Western Cape's Rector and Vice-Chancellor, Professor Brian O'Connell, at a lunchtime meeting on “Universities serving Society” at the School of Public Health on 16 July 2013. Over 50 academic staff attended the talk, the first in a series of discussions leading up to UWC signing the Berlin Declaration to Open Access to Knowledge in the Sciences and Humanities in October 2013.

The Dean of Research, Prof Renfrew Christie, reminded the audience that academics aren't the only people who care about what goes on in universities – people on the outside have a natural desire to know what universities are up to. And that, he explained, is what open access and the Berlin Declaration would allow. Open Access is achieved through deposit of peer-reviewed research papers in repositories or through publication in open access journals – the research is thus free for all to view and use, not just those who've paid for journal subscriptions or whose libraries have allowed them access. Through the internet and open access, knowledge can be open to all.

Prof O'Connell delivered a presentation entitled “Majestic quest: Humanity and the role of the university”. His talk explored humankind's insatiable intellectual curiosity and desire to understand the world – a curiosity that has allowed great intellectual leaps and revolutions.

The Rector explained that science is perhaps humanity's greatest collaborative achievement: a tool that allows us to grow our understanding and our technologies over time. What makes science special is that scientists build on the knowledge of others. By sharing and testing ideas – Newton building on Galileo building on Copernicus – scientists have done great things. Nuclear power, solar power, computers, the internet, and many more wonders can be attributed to the power of collaboration.

And universities have a role to play in this, in producing and sharing research and educating citizens. Looming water shortages, the South African HIV epidemic (an HIV prevalence rate of 16.6% amongst South Africans aged 15-49 years), troubles with food security – these are challenges too big for any single person to face.

Prof O'Connell went on to reference Barratt's seven levels of consciousness model, exploring the “I” in relation to the “we”. Humankind must understand that there is a direct relationship between ownership, competence and hard work, just as there is a direct relationship between population growth and the availability of resources. “Our species must work together,” he said. “Safety lies in knowledge and partnership.” Prof Christie ended the discussion with a reference to the Freedom Charter that sums up open access perfectly: “The people will share!”