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Free speech - closed language

Linguists and language scientists, however, have an even harder life. There are a few free text corpora - for example based on the Gutenberg Project - but interestingly, most of the "language" materials are not free because they are compiled using newspapers and books created by publishing houses. And publishing houses only give permission if very strict licensing rules are observed.

However, the English language is probably the best served in this respect, no doubt because of its international appeal. The most obvious online dictionary resources are those from the Cambridge University Press and the Oxford University Press. At first sight, the Cambridge online dictionary seems the most comprehensive, as it usually gives more information for each entry. However, a simple test inputting "difficult" English words soon found that in coverage of the language the Oxford dictionary is ahead – we soon ran well into double figures with examples of words only found in Oxford, and not one that was only found in Cambridge. The Oxford dictionary claims to contain 145,000 entries, and to be the online equivalent of "The Compact Oxford English Dictionary of Current English".

The Cambridge site is also notable for other language resources, many of which are of course intended to be supplementary to Cambridge's paper publications. The Professional English online section shows promise, although it is fairly new, and does not yet contain a great number of entries.

These two websites are online versions of well established print dictionaries. But things can move in the other direction. An excellent online resource for people interested in what will probably soon be the world's second most important language, Chinese, is This is very well structured, easy to use, and rich in information. It proved so successful that the work was published in what turned out to be a very popular print edition, "Chinese Characters: A Genealogy and Dictionary". The web site continues.

The Duden - German language with copyright
Closer to home among foreign languages, the Duden is Germany's authoritative guide to the German language. The data is available online - but only after signing up and taking out a paid subscription. If you nose around the web pages, you will find something called "Open Duden", but this is a junior competition for budding journalists and not a free online dictionary. Of course, "the Duden" is a simple dictionary published by the very normal Duden Publishers; but unlike the Oxford and Cambridge English dictionaries, or the Merriam-Webster American dictionary, it does not exist as a freely available online version.

Open Education

Science consists of the three main pillars of research, publication and education. Accordingly, different initiatives, text books and bibliographies need to be developed under free licenses. The important key words are Open Courseware (OCW) and Learning Objects. The most relevant project of this kind so far is probably MIT's Open Courseware collection, which, incidentally, doesn't only deal with IT but also with a variety of other subjects. The quality of the material varies to a large degree: sometimes, all that's included is a lecture schedule and bibliography.

Along with the Creative Commons website for free content and Science Commons for scientific content, Open Educational Resources (OER Commons) is a central index of freely available teaching materials for schools and universities. It also includes other subjects besides IT and natural sciences.

When browsing for educational resources you will sooner or later also come across the UK's Open University. It is not a university but a vocational academy where anyone may take courses. Similar to the OU is Germay's FernUniversität in Hagen, but that organisation is recognised by the government and charges considerably less than the OU. The Open University has released some teaching materials for download under a CC license. The quality of the materials is more that of vocational training institutions, which isn't bad in itself but doesn't really have anything to do with university level teaching or research.

It is always worthwhile thoroughly browsing one of the central link collections like Stingy Scholar, which regularly lists interesting resources. A comprehensive reference database for Open Courseware can, for example, be found at

Colombian death mask
Freely accessible images can also be created from scratch: Colombian death mask, Berlin-Dahlem Museum of Ethnology. Image: Andreas Praefcke
Paris-Tech maintains a long list for French language teaching materials - mainly for IT and natural science topics. Of course, in Europe the situation is aggravated by the language diversity - the question whether the phrase "Open Courseware" is used in any of the countries or what its equivalent might be in their languages, for example, doesn't exactly make finding resources any easier.

All in all, much is changing in the scientific landscape. Nevertheless, many fields of science will have to be very patient indeed before availability reaches the levels maintained in Mathematics or IT. To be fair, there is free access in the humanities, although it does not come dressed in an Open Access robe - historical and political sciences, ethnology, archaeology and art history have all presented a large part of their findings in museums and memorials for more than 100 years.

However, we are still a long way away from the day when university lecturers will simply offer a URL leading to a complete collection of seminar texts, or a "If you have a minute, I can give you the materials for this topic on a USB stick".

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