Open Access –an issue for churches and ecumenical organisations
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Open Access –an issue for churches and ecumenical organisations



Open Access Week, a global event now entering its eighth year and taking place in 2014 from 20-26 October, aims to promote the benefits of Open Access to information and research, and to inspire wider participation in helping to make Open Access a new norm in scholarship and research.

“Open Access” means free, immediate, online access to the results of research and publications, and the right to use and re-use those results as needed.

Launched in 2002, the Open Access movement aims to use the Internet to remove barriers to accessing publications, and to “accelerate research, enrich education, share the learning of the rich with the poor and the poor with the rich”, in the words of the founding document of the movement, the Budapest Open Access Initiative.

Open Access often goes hand-in-hand with Creative Commons, a standard way for content creators to grant other people permission to use their work as an alternative to traditional copyright. A range of Creative Commons licences allows content creators to choose the conditions under which they material may be shared and distributed. 

Since its 2002 launch, the Open Access movement has spread worldwide. There are now almost 2750 open access repositories in all parts of the world, with more than 65 million documents. The Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) lists more than 10,000 open access journals from 135 countries with almost 1.75 million articles.

But churches and church organisations have often been slow in adopting Open Access and Creative Commons policies.

Yet Open Access is a profoundly ethical issue, for it is often those from the global South who are locked out from access to knowledge and research – as well as often finding themselves blocked from making their research known to a global audience because of access policies to established journals.

The United Nations cultural and educational organisation UNESCO has adopted an Open Access policy “to help reduce the gap between industrialized countries and those in the emerging economy”, noting that “building peaceful, democratic and inclusive knowledge societies across the world is at the heart of UNESCO’s mandate”.

Several years ago, the World Council of Churches and the World Association for Christian Communication produced a publication,Love to Share, on Intellectual Property Rights, Copyright and Christian Churches. This focussed on liturgical material but many of the principles are more generally valid.

The guidelines encouraged the use of Creative Commons licences to promoting the sharing of church publications and resources, while at the same time discouraging publishers in the North from gathering material from the South and commercialising it for their own profit.

There can be real benefits to sharing knowledge through Open Access and Creative Commons – the global ethics found its publications by authors from the global South being downloaded many thousands of times, compared to having a few hundred printed copies available only in physical libraries.

So what are the issues holding back churches and church organisations from promoting Open Access and using Creative Commons instead of copyright:

 inertia: It’s always been done to add a copyright stipulation, even though publications are placed on the organisational website where anybody can read and download – yet the © copyright symbol is a real barrier to sharing and making this information known.

 lack of awareness of alternatives – or publications are intentionally produced without a © copyright symbol to enable sharing, without realising that copyright still applies if not alternative is stipulated.

 fear that making publications freely available on the internet will undercut sales of printed material. Yet making publications known by posting and sharing them on the internet can sometimes boost sales of printed material – and church publication departments in any case often make little money from sales.

 lack of resources – human and financial – to manage publications and journals effectively: sometimes working with commercial publishers seems the only way for organisations to manage their publications programmes – but even here there are possibilities to negotiate wider access to materials.

Even Open Access supporters acknowledge that OA material is not free to produce, even if it is less expensive to produce than conventionally published literature. The question is not whether literature can be made costless, but whether there are better ways to pay the bills than by charging readers and creating access barriers.

Yet as Love to Share points out, the production of Christian intellectual property should not simply follow the logic of the market. Following this model means there is no difference between the ecumenical community, commercial enterprises and all other institutions of civil society. Instead, the challenge is to create models that allow the creation of products that follow the logic of sharing with all according to their needs (Acts 4:32-35)


Stephen Brown is president-elect of WACC Europe and programme executive for GlobeTheoLib (Global Digital Library on Theology and Ecumenism), an initiative that seeks to use the internet to facilitate access to and sharing of theological knowledge and insights in all parts of the world.


Some resources:

 Open Access Week resources:

  Love to Share: Intellectual Property Rights, Copyright and Christian Churches

  Creative Commons:

 A UNESCO handbook on Open Access: 


These guidelines were developed at the WCC/WACC consultation on copyright in September 2005 in Faverges, France.

• We want to affi rm the moral rights and integrity of creative expression.

• We want to promote—every time it’s possible to do so—free distribution for non-commercial use of worship resources, including songs, hymns, etc. 

• We are committed to creating space for creative exchange among liturgists and song writers around the world (with special support for peoples in the South).

• We want to affirm that the commodification of knowledge is not biblically or theologically appropriate. This is a prophetic affirmation. We see that the deification of the market leads to the commodification of human creative expression, which exacerbates social exclusion, fragmentation and polarization. We are concerned that the market has become the sole reason for creating works.

• We want to affirm that this is a complex set of challenges that demands multi-stakeholder engagement and responses.

• We want to create a playing field where artists from different cultures and different traditions have equal access to and equal protection of creative expression.

• We want to avoid a romantic conception that refuses to engage the multiple realities of human expression.

• We need to affirm difference, pluralism and particularity, respecting, protecting and promoting different cultural expressions.

• We affirm mutual accountability and right relations.

• We affirm that God is the fundamental source of every creative expression and therefore human creativity is a gift of the Creator for the whole human family.

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