While much of the discussion around open access focuses on scientific research, free and meaningful access to reports and data produced by governments is an important part of the picture. In the case of intergovernmental organisations in particular, there are four main benefits from open access to the works they produce: greater transparency around decision-making; support for research, jobs and growth; the moral justice of the public being able to access works for which they have paid; and the example set to national governments.
Much of the focus of Open Access Week is on articles, documents and data produced by academics, based in universities and other research centres.
Arguments centre on the morality of ensuring that publicly funded research is available to those who have paid for it (i.e. the public), and the benefits to further research of facilitating use and re-use of books, articles and data to produce further insights.
The open government movement has tended to focus its advocacy on questions around transparency. When citizens can access information about how decisions are made and money is spent, it is easier to hold those in power to account.
The two movements come together however on around open access to government publications. Making this work – research reports, impact assessments, audits, statistics and other data – available to the public brings a triple dividend.
Public access to the documents that shape decision-making promotes transparency. Possibilities to use and re-use information supports research and potentially new jobs. And taxpayers (effectively everyone, at least where sales taxes exist) are able to read materials for which they have paid.
Going International: The Exemplar Effect
The case is particularly strong in the case of intergovernmental organisations, such as the United Nations, the World Bank and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.
These organisations shape the rules that shape our lives. While their impact may not always be direct, they set the standards and produce the research and recommendations that are the basis of laws and programmes designed by national governments.
For example, through the 2030 Agenda and its Sustainable Development Goals, the United Nations is seeking to set a direction for development across the board. The research that goes into this – and the recommendations produced – are crucial to maintaining the momentum.
If they are openly available, they provide a valuable tool for organisations at all levels advocating for sustainable development, not least libraries. And of course the 2030 Agenda also highlights the importance of access to information (Goal 16.10) and transparency and accountability (Goal 16.7).
Crucially, moreover, intergovernmental organisations also serve as models, with an obligation to demonstrate the standards of openness and good governance that they require of their members. It is the positive example that they can set that offers the fourth dividend to open access in intergovernmental organisations.
Where Do We Stand?
A number of intergovernmental organisations have already made progress here.
The World Bank, UNESCO and the World Intellectual Property Organisation have already implemented far-reaching policies favouring free access to the reports and data they produce.
Moreover, they use licences that make it possible for anyone to re-use information, for example, to write their own reports, create tools or apps, or translate it into their own languages.
However, this is not the case everywhere. As research presented at the Creative Commons Global Summit earlier this year showed, policies are very inconsistent, and often unclear. Some organisations still use highly restrictive licences, or provide only highly restricted free access (for example read-only versions of texts). This is a far from ideal situation.
The detailed data behind this work will shortly be published as a Wikipedia article, and IFLA’s Section on Government Information and Official Publications is preparing a statement which will set out best practice in this area. Our presentation is already available online.
Given the quadruple dividend that open access to reports and data produced by intergovernmental organisations bring, it cannot happen too soon.