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The Barcelona Declaration and Academic Sovereignty: Why Transparency Matters

By Frankie Harnett, Mishelle Kennady and Chloë Marshall


Academic research has long been critiqued for its inaccessibility, and in recent years a war for free and open information has raged on. The Barcelona Declaration is the latest move in this fight for Open Access. Based on the recommendations of over twenty-five experts, organisations gathered on the 16 April to sign a commitment to make research information (scholarly metadata) available to everyone. This community-driven initiative is a radical approach to change the way research is conducted, published and distributed, moving it out of the hands of profit-driven companies that restrict its use and reproduction. This surrounds not only the information itself but the decision-making around it, enabling wider knowledge to better inform science policy and fostering a stronger connection between researchers and the research bodies that support them.


This raises important issues within the publishing industry surrounding the rights to academic publications and mirrors the growth of Open Access publishing seeping into some of the larger companies. Writing for Cambridge University Press, Arthur Smith concluded that Open Access publishing is being seen less of a “fringe” activity and is likely to become the “de facto” method for publishing research. A successful implementation of the aims outlined in the Barcelona Declaration would provide the support and infrastructure to rapidly accelerate the shift to Open Access publishing within the industry. 


The timeline over which Open Access (read more about this here) was conceptualised is imperative to understanding the relevance of the Barcelona Declaration. In what came to be known as the “serials crisis” of the 1990s, increased cost on scholarly information overcame the acquisition budgets set by libraries. This decline was further exacerbated by scientific societies and universities deciding to outsource their publishing needs to commercial publishers which went on to affect journals and monographs. In 2001, the Budapest Open Access Initiative declared “the literature that should be freely accessible online is that which scholars give to the world without expectation of payment.” The Berlin Declaration on Open Access to Knowledge in the Sciences and Humanities was drafted two years later so that organisations could promise to uphold the furtherance of Open Access. 


Following this, different websites launched to break down updated policies, guidelines, licensing and news concerning developments within Open Access. Projects such as OpenAIRE and COAR arose during 2009 to establish archival e-infrastructure and bring visibility to research outputs by involving global Open Access repositories. The San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment developed a set of ideas for research output to be evaluated by funding agencies, academic institutions, and other parties. It grew beyond expectation to become an international initiative that now supports and facilitates research assessment reform. 


The worldwide partnership of scientific and research organisations known as Initiative Open Access 2020 was established in 2015. The objective of the OA2020 effort was to achieve research publication without embargo periods, and that the expenses associated with their distribution were equitable, transparent and financially viable. cOAlition S was then founded, where member organisations agreed upon the immediate release of academic publications on the grounds of research funded by grants. Implementation of the Barcelona Declaration is the newest milestone in the steady, decades-long progress of Open Access.


Collective action is at the heart of the declaration. Based around global cooperation, all signatories commit to four principles when signing the declaration: openness as the default for research; working with systems that enable open research; encouraging the sustainability of Open Access infrastructures; and supporting collective action to accelerate Open Access research. Elizabeth Gadd, who helped craft the declaration, called it a push for passively supportive organisations to “put their money where their mouth is.” 


The declaration has received significant support from cOAlition S, whose funders the Dutch Research (NOW), the French National Research Agency (ANR) and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) were among the first to sign. Similarly, there has been a wave of support from universities, including Sorbonne University, which is embracing the active ethos of the declaration, having made the swap to an Open Access platform OpenApex just last year. The university’s representative commented that signing the declaration shifted the Open Access from a far-off objective to a tangible future that can be achieved.


Crucially, the Barcelona Declaration supports the development of an open infrastructure for scholarship. This infrastructure consists of the ways we store research information: in bibliographic databases, software archives, and data repositories. If scholarship can be conceived as a huge building constantly in construction, the aforementioned “archival e-infrastructure” is the digital bedrock upon which it is built. Such vast databases must therefore not only undergo quality controls for structural integrity, but for scholarship to benefit everyone involved (i.e. the entire world), researchers need to have access to such data, to improve and build upon it. 


The question of academic sovereignty – the protection of an independent academic community – depends upon the principles of an open scholarly infrastructure, which cover the governance, sustainability and insurance of digital research information repositories, such as OpenAlex, OpenCitations and OpenAIRE. Bibliographic information using persistent identifiers (PIDs) and stored in such repositories is further essential for the interoperability of systems and the overall interconnectedness of a “sovereign” scholarly community.


The Barcelona Declaration is inscribed in a constantly evolving movement towards Open Access. This not only concerns research being “free” to view and download in financial terms, but demands that the metadata used to store, organise and reference it be immediately accessible for all. However, as the declaration makes clear, the “openness of research information is a spectrum, not an absolute.” There’s still a long way to go, but the signatories’ commitments to opening up research data are concrete, targeted steps towards the increased autonomy of researchers and the wider impact of their work.


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