The Enlightenment 2.0: An Open Letter on OpenAIRE

Dear Dr. Neelie Kroes, Vice President of the European Commission:

I was recently a guest at your launch in Ghent of the European Commission’s OpenAIRE initiative. You spoke eloquently and forcefully about how OpenAIRE is providing infrastructure for “open access” across the European Union, and how it represents a strong stand for both mandating and supporting open access to research funded by the European Commission. You, indeed, made it seem the only sensible way for research to progress in this new century.

It was deeply stirring to see a continent-wide embrace of open access. The Open Access Infrastructure for Research In Europe that OpenAIRE stands for involves an impressive linking up institutional and disciplinary repositories, national and regional indexes, help-desks and other forms of supports. The launch itself was marked by virtual bells and whistles, protocols and acronyms, Gaant and Pert charts, metadata harvesters and orphan repositories, champagne and foie gras. Having travelled from afar, I suddenly felt that I was lacking a congratulatory gift to share with everyone. I hope I will be forgiven for hastily wrapping up a school-child’s version of my host’s own history and handing it over to all that were gathered there (in historic, medieval Ghent). 

Still, you did speak of a need to communicate this milestone to the public. It is in that spirit I have sought to help put by working up an academic’s version of an ad campaign for OpenAIRE that is directed toward the research community and the public. My goal is to raise awareness of the contribution that OpenAIRE can make, as the knowledge at issue entails both rights and responsibilities. It is also a chance for Europe, forgive my presumption, to upgrade its earlier Enlightenment. This is the time, then, for a philosophical and historical reminders of how OpenAIRE is a making good on an earlier promise, to that end here are a half-dozen snappy ad-ready phrases. Or such are my gifts.

Just say know. This was the European Enlightenment tag line. In 1784, Kant wrote a newspaper op-ed response to the question of “What Is Enlightenment?” He held that it involved advancing public reason and moving people out from under the tutelage of others. (Now, I realize that just say no did not work with drugs, with all due respect to Nancy Reagan and it is not working with abstinence sex education; but it could work, Wikipedia suggests, with knowledge.)

Kant say know? Well, yes, many do say no to the Enlightenment for its failure the first time around. For all of the Enlightenment talk of human rights and reason, it was the intellectual driver of European imperialism, its heroes indifferent to, if not heartlessly investing in, human slavery and the Middle Passage. This time? OpenAIRE represents a cooperative, globally co-authored rewriting of the Enlightenment. It is a light meant to shine on all, in the collaborative, cooperative, and participatory spirit of this new venture.

Know quality? Schooling the young doesn’t necessarily enlighten them, in Kant’s sense. Yet providing people with the means of accessing the latest research, for all of its contentiousness and tentativeness, holds some promise of raising the very quality of public reason and deliberation, much as Kant dreamed. Think of an education that also helps students find their discerning, fact-checking way through the tutelage-challenging research and scholarship that will be publicly available, thanks to OpenAIRE and related open access projects. 

The right to know now. More needs to be made of the human right to know. Think of policymakers, health-care providers, teachers and the public pausing to check for new developments that bear on their work, as if they had a right to know. But then think, as well, of the human curiosity and wonder that will be able explore and reach farther than every before, thanks to open access policies.

As free as the OpenAIRE. As the Internet strikes many as polluted by misinformation, it can be cast as an OpenAIRE quality issue. That is, as web searches and Wikipedia articles will now be able to pick up more of this OpenAIRE-quality research, so the (information) pollution index goes down, if only by the smallest of degrees at first, until expectations and a sense of right to know grow. 

An act for the encouragement of learning. It is time, as well, to recall the Enlightenment’s earlier legal triumphs, such as The Act for the Encouragement of Learning. This was the title of England’s Statute of Anne, 1710, otherwise known as the first copyright act in the English language. So began as a legal right to foster and distribute learning, replete with clauses protecting university access to knowledge. We have lost sight of the originating impulse behind copyright in the headlong commercialization of intellectual property. OpenAIRE, and open access more generally, are restoring a balance between then and now, and are set to encourage acts of learning that should be celebrated as such, in this original legal sense.

Can a campaign of bad puns stir public expectations around this critical right to know? Perhaps not, but the European Commission’s launch of OpenAIRE in Ghent provided an encouraging and enlightening moment for thinking about how greater access to knowledge will contribute to the educational and democratic quality of our lives. 


John Willinsky

Stanford University 

Public Knowledge Project


  1. Rising to your challenge, I have penned a few words to further celebrate OpenAIRE with more bad puns. May I direct your readers to

  2. Nicolaie Constantinescu

    Here you may find the Romanian translation:

    Thank you for this open letter!

    Kind regards