Why Open Access Is Necessary for Makers

This is an Open Access Week guest post by Jordan Bunker, prototype engineer and open access advocate.

After the world went into lockdown for COVID-19, Makers were suddenly confined to their workshops. Rather than idly wait it out, many of them decided to put their tools and skills to use, developing low-cost, rapid production methods for much-needed PPE and DIY ventilators in an effort to address the worldwide shortage.

It might sound outlandish to think that hobbyists and weekend warriors would be able to design and build devices that contribute to bending the curve of the pandemic, but there’s a rich history of similar work. The “iron lung,” the first modern negative-pressure ventilator, began as a side project of Harvard engineer Philip Drinker. It was powered by an electric motor and air pumps from vacuum cleaners. By 1928, Philip Drinker and Louis Shaw had finished designs, and production of the “Drinker respirator” began, saving lives during the Polio epidemic.

In the 1930s, John Emerson, a high-school drop-out and self-taught inventor, improved on the design of Drinker’s iron lung, releasing a model that was quieter, lighter, more efficient, and half the price of the Drinker respirator. Drinker and Harvard eventually sued Emerson, claiming patent infringement. After defending against these claims, Emerson went on to become a key manufacturer of these life-saving devices, a development that was applauded by healthcare providers of the time.

It’s not enough to just have the tools and know-how; you also need insight and context. Emerson’s machine shop was located in Harvard Square, where he built research devices for the local Boston medical schools. Without a doubt, that high-bandwidth access to researchers and users of his devices assisted in his innovations. In order to develop or improve existing technology, the modern Maker community needs access to the same sort of information.

Open access to research is critical to the process of developing new things. Making the methods and results of research freely available to all preserves the ability to fruitfully investigate and improve upon existing methods and devices. The first step in fixing or improving a system is understanding how it works, and what the mechanisms at play are. Impediments like paywalls or subscriptions decrease the likelihood that research is shared, and results in a severe handicap to the innovation process. In his book Democratizing Innovation, MIT professor Eric von Hippel makes the case that if “innovations are not diffused, multiple users with very similar needs will have to invest to (re)develop very similar innovations, which would be a poor use of resources from the social welfare point of view.” If the purpose of academic research is to push the boundaries of human knowledge, there is no justifiable case to be made for restricting access to that knowledge.

From its earliest days on the Internet, the Maker community has embraced the culture of information sharing. Through project documentation, YouTube videos, free 3D printer STL files, Makers share their methods and innovations freely and openly, enriching the community with each new project. As a result, millions of people have been able to learn new skills, develop new products, and become contributors to the open body of knowledge freely available online.

In 2010, I became frustrated that there was so much information locked in the “ivory tower” of academic research journals, and I wanted to do my part in liberating some of it. After reading a research paper from a UIUC materials science lab (which my university library thankfully had access to), I set out to replicate the results at our local hackerspace. After parsing the jargon, I deciphered their methods and was able to successfully make the conductive ink described in the paper. In keeping with the Maker ethos of sharing, I wrote a blog post describing how I did it using low-tech tools.

In 2020, there are now many Makers who are doing the same thing. YouTubers like Applied Science, The Thought Emporium, NileRed, and Breaking Taps routinely post videos on methods gleaned from research papers, sharing how they replicated the results, even filling in gaps in the papers with their own experiments, methods, successes, and failures.

These hobbyists aren’t just sharing information; they’re also providing a much-needed service to the academic community: replication. With countless academic papers being published every year, there’s a growing “replication crisis,” where many of the studies published have been impossible to reproduce. In 2016, a poll of 1,500 scientists revealed that 70% had failed to reproduce at least one other scientist’s experiment, and 50% had even failed to reproduce one of their own experiments. Opening access to research allows Makers to participate in the process, addressing the need for replication.

This democratic, open access approach to the development, discovery, and distribution of research, enables both academics and non-academics alike to test, replicate, improve, and submit their findings in a highly transparent way. It allows all to participate in broadening the horizons of scientific research, regardless of whether they are enrolled at (or employed by) a university. Open access allows anyone who learns or discovers something new to share that information, even if they haven’t spent thousands of dollars and years of their life earning credentials.

Whether it’s for medical device innovation, materials science methods, or any other body of human knowledge, it’s time for open access research to be the default. The promise of the Internet is free and open access to information for and from all, and information gleaned from research should be no different. Making researchers (or Makers) pay to both publish and access research is an antiquated system that has no place on the modern Internet. It serves only to profit publishers and actively hinders innovation and critical research replication. It’s time for the academic community to shed this vestigial appendage and embrace the open access ethos that Makers have engendered online.

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Author: Lindsay Oliver

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