Eberhard (Ebs) Hilf is a true veteran of the Open Access (OA) movement. A theoretical physicist based in Oldenburg, Hilf began his advocacy at least eight years before the term Open Access was coined. Yet in contrast to prominent OA advocates like Stevan Harnad and Peter Suber, Hilf was until relatively recently little known in the movement outside his native Germany. Richard Poynder explains why.
Although a dedicated OA advocate, Hilf's main focus from the very beginning has always been on the broader issue of how the Web can improve scholarly communication. OA, he says, is just the first step to enabling a bigger revolution.
Thus while he has approached OA from this broader perspective, Hilf's assumption has nevertheless always been that OA needs to be viewed as a given. As he put it to a group of physicists and mathematicians in Halle (East Germany) in June 1994, in an online world all scholarly papers "should be free for all to read".
(By a strange accident of timing Hilf gave his presentation on the very same day that — on the other side of the Atlantic — Stevan Harnad posted his "Subversive Proposal" calling on all researchers to start making their papers freely available on the Web).
The seeds of Hilf's advocacy were sown in an incident that occurred a year earlier (in 1993), when a student came into his office and remarked: "You professors sit in here while outside a revolution is going on — the World Wide Web."
The student in question was Heinrich Stamerjohanns, at that time an assistant to Tim Berners-Lee, the British computer scientist who — with Robert Calliau — is credited with having invented the World Wide Web in 1991.
When Stamerjohanns explained what he meant Hilf immediately saw the potential it offered to revolutionise scholarly communication and asked Stamerjohanns to create Germany's first web server, in his department at the University of Oldenburg.
Hilf then embarked on a fact-finding tour of America. There he visited scholarly publishers, US universities and a bunch of technology companies — including Microsoft, where he was reliably informed that the Web had no future, and so there was no point in engaging with HTML!
Fortunately, Hilf took this advice with a pinch of salt, not least because one of his other stop-off points in the US was the Los Alamos National Lab (LANL), where he called in on fellow theoretical physicist Paul Ginsparg.
In 1991 Ginsparg had created a centralised electronic service to allow physicists to share their preprints with one another. Subsequently renamed arXiv, it began life as an email-based service, but was subsequently ported to the Web. There it went on to become an essential component in the process of scholarly communication for physicists — and today many physicists, as a matter of course, post their preprints in arXiv prior to sending them to a publisher.
Currently arXiv hosts over half a million papers, and around 5,000 new ones are added each month. Moreover, it is no longer restricted to physics alone: arXiv now accepts papers in mathematics, computer science, quantitative biology, quantitative finance and statistics as well.
Recalling his visit to Ginsparg, Hilf says, "At that time the entire content of arXiv was still on a single PC under Paul's desk in his office, a small room at LANL."
Arriving back from his trip in a jetlagged and somewhat febrile state, Hilf rushed to the lecture hall at Oldenburg University, ripped up the physics lecture he was scheduled to give, and enthused excitably for an hour about arXiv.
"As a result we all started reading papers on arXiv," says Thomas Severiens, then one of Hilf's students." He adds: "They weren't much use to sixth term students, but we read them with interest nevertheless." ...
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