The telescope was not the instrument through which Galileo opened the skies four centuries ago, forever changing our concepts of worlds terrestrial and celestial. No, Galileo's breakthrough was not a technological one, nor an intellectual one per se. Copernicus and Kepler had laid out the concepts before Galileo pointed his modest tube into the sky. What made all the difference, the lever that finally displaced the constraining, earth-centered Ptolemaic cosmos and ushered in a heliocentric worldview and the many advances that came in the wake of empirical science, was nothing so concrete as lenses nor so abstract as mathematical formulas. No, it was Galileo's strategy for freely and publicly communicating his findings. Galileo opened the heavens with Open Access.
Galileo is often remembered as a martyr of free intellectual inquiry--browbeaten by the Inquisition, confined to house arrest, forced to recant. But he could afford to placate the knowledge mafia because by that time, the 1630s, any censoring by authorities was too little too late. He'd already succeeded in proving Copernicus right and spreading the word enough that the new epistemology had taken root. Those religious authorities wouldn't have been so upset if Galileo's Open Access campaign hadn't already succeeded.
Of course Galileo didn't call his campaign for spreading scientific knowledge "Open Access publishing," but Galileo was following the same principles that animate today's movement to liberate scholarly knowledge. Most in his day were operating within a different paradigm--one that privileged the restriction of knowledge. That paradigm has proven as limiting to the advancement of learning as the Ptolemaic model was for understanding the galaxy.
Take, for example, the actual inventors of the telescope, Hans Lippershey and James Metius of Alkmaar. These two Dutch men typify the breakdown in innovation that happens when knowledge is restricted for commercial purposes. This is a durable model, of course, as academic publishers demonstrate today through their $7 billion business selling access to knowledge. But this approach really backfired for these two telescope makers. They each tried to secure patents on their devices in the Netherlands. Political and legal entanglements prevented them. When Metius didn't obtain the patent, he not only refused to let anyone see his telescope again, but when he died he had all of his tools destroyed so that no one else could ever receive credit for his achievement. (It's not unlike those publishers who keep their backlist out of print because if they can't get a financial profit by selling access, then by dang, no one is going to get any other kind of profit from those books, either!)
Galileo was operating from a different set of principles than these Dutch inventors. Instead of keeping his telescope or his discoveries secret, he did everything he could to give that knowledge away. He was constantly doing public demonstrations, touring with his instrument and getting church men, academics, and laymen peeping through his optics as he explained the significance of this new mode of seeing. And he didn't charge admission or lecture fees. In fact, in a grand gesture (I am borrowing from Daniel Boorstin's account from The Discoverers), Galileo made a gift of his invention to the Venetian Senate. What? Why would anyone give away the best product of his mind? Well, because the spread of knowledge can prove both personally and publicly profitable. Galileo's gift bought the attention of the Venetian leaders, earning him tenure at the University of Padua and a big raise (to 1000 florins!).
But academia proved a mixed blessing for Galileo. It gave him an important avenue for spreading his ideas, but simultaneously proved a vexing roadblock for their dissemination. He published his findings in a pamphlet called The Starry Messenger, but the stir it caused created jealousies. His peers managed to influence the Venetian senate, and Galileo suddenly found himself without his florins or his post in Padua. Sometimes academia is the anti-environment for innovaters because real innovation upsets the status quo.
Galileo got himself set up in Florence with the Medicis, but when he published his more influential work on the Copernican theory a few years later, he did not address this important book to learned peers, nor did he compose it in Latin; he put his Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems into an accessible dramatic format and published this in Italian. He ignored the academic audience and took his work to the people. As his biographer Ludovico Geymonat explains, his goal was to interest literate laymen, and he dove full-bore into the public debates about the cosmos.
To compare Galileo's strategy to our own times, it is as though he took his best thinking, passed over academic outlets and the genres and language of scholarly discourse, and went about blogging his theories. And like a modern blog, this more popular mode of disseminating knowledge led to rapid, informal responses from public commentors. Oh, his ideas were being discussed among academics (Kepler published on how Galileo was confirming his own ideas, for example). But that wasn't the audience that ended up mattering most.
Galileo focused his telescope upward and his findings outward. He equally defied the orthodoxies of the known cosmos and the cosmos of knowing, breaking from how knowledge was communicated as much as from how the solar system was organized. That made all the difference.
We roll our eyes at the blatant anti-intellectualism of the censoring Inquisition, but we forget that mechanisms for knowledge control are alive and well in contemporary academic publishing. The orthodoxy of peer review makes populist communication like blogging or Twitter the heresies of the current day.
What Ptolemaic worlds are we stuck in? What Copernican paradigm shifts do we deny ourselves because we have capitulated to the restricted access mode of vetted knowledge? What are the powerful ideas that could take root, take off, remaking the landscapes of our life--but held hostage behind commercial and editorial barriers that keep ideas from igniting by keeping them from spreading?
The digital world is no new world at all so long as it remains tethered by the same restricted knowledge paradigm that tried to ground Galileo's vision. If our communication is not electronic, online, and freed from commercial and licensing restrictions, then we are not the equals of Galileo, nor worthy of the fantastic instruments multiplying in our hands. To discourage or delay Open Access publishing today is not simply ignoring an efficiency for disseminating scholarship; it is betraying an epistemological evolution.
Sustaining the print paradigm for academic publishing is effectively a commitment to an Anti-Enlightenment. It is an insistence that knowledge systems are fixed and absolute, like the Ptolemaic universe--not open to question precisely because they are the grounds of powerful systems of authority. The peer-reviewing professoriate of today --requiring the quarantining of knowledge until research receives the appropriate imprimatur from certified knowledge authorities -- is thus the exact counterpart to the Catholics of Galileo's time. Modern academics distance themselves from the narrow-mindedness of those resisting Galileo's innovations, but they are more the heirs of Galileo's censors than of his pioneering methods.
In the name of preserving the quality of scholarship (the purity of doctrine), today's academic priesthood requires all publishing to be routed through them, rejecting as irrelevant whatever lacks the peer-reviewed imprimatur of a scholarly journal. By limiting the speed and spread of knowledge made possible online (for the righteous cause of review), they merely update Galileo's house arrest. By keeping in place the for-profit model of requiring the scarcity and exclusion of knowledge, they imitate the myopic Metius of Alkmaar who kept at bay any Copernican revelations by safeguarding his intellectual property. What does a telescope matter if it is never pointed to the sky? What does an Internet matter if academia keeps the speed and agility of inquiry grounded in publishing processes that disarm the very virtues the new tools offer?
We have at hand an instrument of vision and inquiry more powerful than any telescope: the socially organized and semantically agile engine of inquiry and insight being erected in the digital domain, propelled forward by broad and rapid participation and an accelerated iterative review process that print publishing cannot approximate with its asynchronous "conversations." We cannot transcend the prior knowledge system if tethered to its slowness and secrecy.
We should be better stewards of our instruments of knowledge--humble enough to discard systems that shut down epistemological evolution. The restrictions of conventional toll-access and peer-reviewed scholarship keep knowledge in the low orbit of what is familiar and controllable. But there are Galileos out there who have caught sight of higher worlds. They are learning to bypass systems of knowledge in order to achieve the purposes that those systems seem to have forgotten.
That's what Open Access is, really, and not just a way to more publicly warehouse traditional scholarship. It is an epistemology; it is a worldview; it is a commitment to a new way of understanding, expressing, and improving the world.