What if we did suddenly have open access to all technical literature? And by this, I mean that the publishers can still keep publishing just as many journals and articles as before and the quality is the same as before and...and...and...Basically the world is the same as before, except that you will never again see those disheartening words that "Your current credentials do not allow retrieval of the full text" or any of a number of equivalent messages.
I see plenty of people that want open access, and plenty of publishers that want to avoid it, but very little thought as to what would happen if universal open access did occur. Here are my thoughts:
The most significant change would be that people like me and hundreds of thousands like me in medium and smaller industrial settings around the world would have access to information that we did not have before. Importantly, this is information that we can use. We are capable of reading it, understanding it and using it. To use the words of one publisher, we are "qualified readers" (even as he argues that we aren't) [*].
With that sudden influx of information, does anyone not think that there would be a sudden increase in innovation? More innovative products like we've never seen before? And what would be the economic impact of that? More jobs?
I'm not saying that people in smaller companies are more creative than in large companies, it's just that we are not burdened by the slow pace that the large companies move at. We can run circles around them in getting things done. That's why when we get great ideas and develop them, we are snatched up by the big companies.
We already face many restrictions at a small company - lack of capital, equipment, manpower...and to propose a fantasy world where these restrictions would be magically removed is really too much to even imagine. But removing limitations on access to the latest scientific information is not that large of stretch, and would have tremendous benefits to the country and the world.
When I am speaking of innovations, I am not just thinking of disposable consumer products that the world can probably be just fine without. Here in the Twin Cities we have probably the largest number of medical device startup companies in the world. How many new live saving devices could this information generate? How much could efforts towards sustainable chemistry be advanced? Or new energy alternatives? Or improvements in food, or clean water or...
I am not and have never argued "Death to Publishers!". They provide an great service that should be compensated. But can that happen in alternative manners that allow for open access? And would that world be a better world than what we currently have? I would argue that that vision should be used to guide our way forward, not simply "Open Access? Yes or No?"
[*] The irony is that many of us in industrial settings provide the peer review for journals that we do not have access to. If we are qualified enough to review the paper, we are qualified enough to use it.