Open Access Science and Science Policy

One of the best commentaries on “open science” (or, “open access science”) that I’ve seen recently is one pointed to in a blog entry, Open Access Science, ChemSpy, 24 July 2007. It’s Will John Wilbanks Launch the Next Scientific Revolution?, by Abby Seiff, PopSci, July 2007. It includes an interview with John Wilbanks, “executive director of the Science Commons initiative, and the six-year-old innovation of its parent organization, Creative Commons“.


When Pasteur had his eureka moment, the processes leading up to it were barely different than Archimedes’s. The scientist hypothesized, created his tools, and executed his experiments with little need for input from his colleagues. My, how things have changed.

Wilbanks and his team (which includes Nobel Prize winners Joshua Lederberg and John Sulston) are focused on three areas where roadblocks to scientific discovery are most common: in accessing literature, obtaining materials, and sharing data.

PopSci spoke with Wilbanks about how copyright goes wrong and whether scientists can learn to share.

How will an open-access system improve scientific research?

The question is, have we now hit a point where scientific problems are so complex that one person alone can’t solve them? It would certainly seem that way. The problems science is pursuing today—issues like global warming and genomic mapping—demand a distributed approach across disciplines. But currently, journal articles, data, research, materials and so on are stopped by contracts and copyrights at such a rate that it’s become nearly impossible to pull them together.

How has the scientific community received the Science Commons idea?

We’re pretty pleased at how positive the response has been. It mostly comes from our focus on research. Every scientist would like to be able to move through research faster, to spend less time and money acquiring material or disseminating it. That said, it will be fascinating to see what happens when people have to start sharing their own stuff.

After reading this commentary, I found it interesting to re-read an article, Toward a Post-Academic Science Policy, by David Kellogg, International Journal of Communications Law & Policy (Special Issue, Access to Knowledge), Autumn 2006. He contrasts (page 12/29) academic science (based on these norms: Communalist; Universal; Disinterested; Original; Skeptical) with industrial science (based on these norms: Proprietary; Local; Authoritarian; Commissioned; Expert), and suggests that post-academic science now fits neither the academic nor the industrial model.

The terminology “open science” (or “open access science”) isn’t used in this article, but it does include comments about “open access”. For example (page 15/29), he suggests that one attribute of post-academic science is this one:

(II) Post-Academic Science Makes Scientific Knowledge more Open to Public Scrutiny

The same technologies that make virtual labs and corporations possible also make scientific information more widely distributed and disseminated. Take the scientific journal article itself, which in academic science publishing was confined to the boundaries of the IMRAD [Introduction, Methods, Results, and Discussion] format. In recent years, scientific journals have started to publish complete data sets accompanying print publication on the web; thus, print articles grow smaller even as the amount of associated available information becomes (as a practical matter) unlimited. Some long-running print journals which have established an internet presence are making such “supplemental materials” a requirement of publication, and journals based entirely on the web practice such openness as a matter of course.[ref 16] At least in theory, this means that both the public and fellow scientists are able to examine claims made in published papers more closely.

Another perspective on modes of knowledge production, with much attention to the potential impact of OA, has been provided by John Houghton, Colin Steele and Peter Sheehan in their report to the Department of Education, Science and Training (DEST) of the Australian Government. It’s entitled: Research communication costs in Australia : Emerging opportunities and benefits, September 2006.

In Figure 4.1 (page 55/156), Evolution of scholarly communication, they outline two modes of knowledge production: Disciplinary (Mode 1) and Transdisciplinary (Mode 2). Several attributes of Mode 2 overlap with those of David Kellogg’s model of post-academic science. For example, in Mode 2, knowledge production is “diffuse and collaborative“. Similarly, post-academic science “multiplies the sites of knowledge production“. In Mode 2, evaluation is “external“. Similarly, post-academic science “makes scientific knowledge more open to public scrutiny“. Of particular interest is David Kellogg’s suggestion that what is happening is that the norms of academic science are being transformed by the norms of industrial science, and vice versa. Thus, post-academic science is a hybrid.

Another author who emphasises the importance of interactions between academic science and industrial science, and also interactions with governmental policy, is Loet Leydesdorff. See, for example, The Triple Helix Model and the Study of Knowledge-based Innovation Systems. Int. Journal of Contemporary Sociology 2005; 42(1): 12-27.

An excerpt from the Abstract:

This paper examines the changing nature of knowledge-based innovation systems in light of the dynamic interconnections between the university, industry and government. Industries have to assess in what way and to what extent they decide to internalize R&D functions.

The importance of such models for science policy is being examined from a South African perspective. See, for example, The State of the Nation 2: Clashing paradigms in South African research publication policy, by Eve Gray, Gray Area blog, March 15, 2007. Excerpts:

To summarise somewhat brutally; the common theme across these policies is that South African research must address national development needs and contribute to employment and economic growth. The emphasis is on the value of collaborative and inter-disciplinary research in a rapidly-changing technological environment. While attention is paid to the need to build the international reputation of South African research, this is balanced out by a developmental focus that insists on a responsiveness to national need.

The wording of the policy [of the Department of Education] insists on ‘originality’, rather than tackling the implications of the collaborative research approaches recommended in the research policy framework. The target audience of these publications is identified as ‘other specialists in the field’, therefore rewarding individual rather than collaborative effort and dissemination within the scholarly community rather than the wider dissemination that would be needed to deliver the development goals of the R&D and Innovation policy framework. In other words, the policies framing rewards for research publication remain firmly in a collegial tradition in which the purpose of scholarly communication is turned inwards into the academy. The system is related to personal advancement in academe and the prestige of scholars and institutions in the international rankings rather than grappling with what it might mean to couple this with gearing research dissemination towards broader social goals.

See also: Jennifer A. De Beer, Open Access scholarly communication in South Africa: current status, significance, and the role for National Information Policy in the National System of Innovation. Masters thesis, Department of Information Science, Stellenbosch University, South Africa (2005). An excerpt from the Abstract:

Open Access scholarly communication is an overt intervention regarding knowledge diffusion. The marginalisation of science in and of developing countries, leading to a state of knowledge imperialism and knowledge dependence, is addressed, and it is argued that knowledge diffusion and generation are at the heart of long-term economic growth.

My own view is that some of the strongest and most influential justifications for OA are those that are based on the view that support for OA is good public policy. The impact of science communication on public policy is an important issue that merits the ongoing attention of policy-makers. I also agree with this comment:

The real issue: How to balance the interlocking, often conflicting interests of all stakeholders in scientific research—including researchers, publishers, corporations, and society—and how to achieve this balance in a wired, commercialized world where the public good doesn’t always come first.

See: Open Access and the Case for Public Good: The Scientists’ Perspective, by Michelle Romero, Online 2003(Jul/Aug); 27(4).

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  1. tillje said

    For a review of justifications for OA, see: Problems and opportunities (blizzards and beauty), Peter Suber, SPARC Open Access Newsletter, issue #111, July 2, 2007. Examples of problems solved by OA:

    * Knowledge problem (for readers)
    * Impact problem (for authors)
    * Affordability problem (for libraries)
    * Unfairness problem (for taxpayers)
    * Inefficiency problem (for research funders)
    * Perversity problem (of publishers limiting access to generate revenue)

    He then considers “the problems arising from the subscription business model itself“. Excerpts:

    The subscription model makes a publisher’s method of cost recovery function as an access barrier. It requires artificial scarcity for information when digital technologies can abolish information scarcity altogether. It makes publishers insist on controlling access to research they didn’t perform, write up, or fund. It makes them act (to use the wonderful PLoS analogy) like midwives who insist on keeping the baby rather than midwives who deliver the baby, hand it back to its parents, and take payment for services rendered.

    The subscription model doesn’t scale with the explosive growth in the volume of published research, and it wouldn’t scale even if prices were low.

    He also comments on “beautiful opportunities to seize“. One opportunity:

    Knowledge is “non-rivalrous” (to use a term from the economics of property). That means we can share it without dividing it, and consume it without diminishing it. My possession and use of some knowledge doesn’t exclude your possession and use of the same knowledge. By contrast, familiar physical goods like land, food, and machines are all rivalrous. To share them, we must take turns or settle for portions.

    We’re very fortunate that knowledge is non-rivalrous. We can all know the same facts or ideas without my knowledge blocking yours or yours blocking mine. We’re even more fortunate that speech is non-rivalrous, since this allows us to articulate and share our knowledge without reducing it to a rivalrous commodity. We can all hear the same spoken words without my listening blocking yours or yours blocking mine.

    But for all of human history before the digital age, writing has been rivalrous. Written or recorded knowledge became a material object like stone, clay, skin, or paper, which was necessarily rivalrous. Even when we had the printing press and photocopying machines, and could make many copies at comparatively low cost, each copy was a rivalrous material object. Despite its revolutionary impact, writing was hobbled from birth by this tragic limitation. We could only record non-rivalrous knowledge in a rivalrous form, much as we could only translate one poem into a different poem.

    Digital texts, however, are non-rivalrous. If we all have the equipment to support them, then we can all have copies of the same digital text without excluding one another, without multiplying our costs, and without depleting our resources. Digital writing is the first kind of writing that does not reduce recorded knowledge to a rivalrous object.

    He then emphasizes the need to take full advantage of this opportunity.

    I’ve quoted Peter Suber’s comments at some length, because these issues clearly have major policy implications. It’ll take some time to adapt to the reality that digitally-recorded knowledge no longer needs to be dealt with as if it were a rivalous resource.

  2. tillje said

    See also Heather Morrison’s comments, Needed: Open Access, Open Science, The Imaginary Journal of Poetic Economics, 25 July 2007.

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