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Open Science - Opportunity and Challenge for Freedom and Equality in the Digital Age

About the Project:

The Corona pandemic in unprecedented ways highlights the potential of the internet for science and scholarly communication. In the race against the virus, researchers from all over the globe made their research data and findings openly available on the internet; many publishers lifted their pay-walls after the closure of universities and libraries to provide access to the literature also in times of home office. The global health crisis not only gave a push to the digitalization of science and scholarly communication; it has certainly also revitalized the debates about the merits of Open Science (OS), understood here as an umbrella term (including Open Access) for efforts to use the communicative potential of the internet to make research at its different stages widely available.

In the early years of the new millennium, many believed that the internet would bring about some fundamental changes to the ways in which science is produced and disseminated; free accessibility over the internet was viewed as the future. However, the long-predicted “access revolution” did not take place. Today, there is serious reason to believe that a paradigm shift is underway. Important national and international funding organizations massively push for more openness in science; most big publishers feature Open Access options in their portfolios. Moreover, and also motivated by the current pandemic, there seems to be growing normative consensus internationally that – at least publicly funded – research should be openly accessible. In 2020, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in its General Comment on the “right to science” asked states to promote OS; UNESCO is currently working on a recommendation on OS. 

The growing importance of OS raises important questions from a human rights perspective. Proponents argue that OS is not only a driver of innovation; they also see it as a tool for more equality in access to science and a contribution to closing the “knowledge gap”. In this view, OS not only serves other human rights; it is a right in and of itself. Critics on the other hand point to the pitfalls and darker sides of the direction the development is currently taking. Instead of enhancing equality, they argue, OS creates new exclusions, further strengthens the role of private actors in science and even threatens academic freedom.

The aim of this project is to examine OS from a global justice perspective. Does openness in science indeed enhance equality in access, and is it even a requirement under human rights law in the digital age? Taking Germany and Switzerland as reference points, and with a particular focus on the “right to science” and science-related constitutional guarantees, the project explores how fundamental/human rights enable and/or limit access to scientific information, and which rights and principles guide the system of knowledge production. The project maps the OS landscape and analyzes different models and legislative approaches from an equality perspective. An empirical chapter explores how Open Access works “on the ground” and how it impacts discourses in international law, the author’s own discipline. Finally, the project also looks beyond OS and discusses further legislative measures aiming to make the science system more equitable, such as intellectual property law, competition law as well as the proposed EU Digital Markets Act.


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