Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Implausible deniability at NIH

WaPo is reporting that NIH has buckled under pressure from scientific publishers and gutted its new Open Access proposal. That proposal, which was set to be announced last week, would have asked researchers to deposit NIH funded research papers in the National Library of Medicine's Pub Central repository within 6 months of publication, making them freely available to the public. The new plan would push that back to one year, a time when many publishers already make their content publicly available. NIH Director Elias Zerhouni denied that the change was in response to intense pressure applied to NIH by lobbyists for commercial publishers and the Association of American Publishers, whose president, Patricia Schroeder, is a former congresswoman from Colorado. With this denial, Zerhouni is lying, plainly and simply. Another "water carrier" for the Administration.

But the fight continues on other fronts. One of the evolving norms of science is that it be "open." I say "evolving" because historically scientists often kept essential elements of important scientific discoveries secret. Newton is a notable, but hardly unique example, declining to reveal crucial optical experiments he performed. But in the twentieth and now the twenty-first century, science has become a cooperative if not a collaborative enterprise. Except in mathematics, it is usual to see multi-author papers, many having half dozen or more authors representing different expertise and often disparate parts of the world. When supported by taxpayer dollars, it seems only proper that scientific knowledge be freely available, especially in public health which is a global enterprise. Science that is not available and accessible to the world scientific community does not fit into the agenda of public health science.

Here, as in other areas of "intellectual property" (why isn't this considered an oxymoron?) the battle lines are being drawn. Despite the NIH cave-in, the Open Access movement gains ground daily (see previous post) and many scientists are experimenting with new forms of licensing. This site, for example, is licensed under a Creative Commons license, details of which can be found by clicking the button in the footer of the window.

Now new fronts have opened regarding control of biological information and a new, "open source" biology is emerging. On one side are multinational companies like Monsanto, and ironically many universities who hope to profit from the work of their faculties. On the other side are new scientist initiatives. One, originating in Australia is The Biological Innovation for Open Society, or BIOS, and another is an outgrowth of Lawrence Lessig's Creative Commons effort, called Science Commons. As in the software open source movement, the biological open source principle is meant to allow scientists to decide the extent of control they want over their scientific products.
Just like open-source software, open-source biology users own the patents to their creations, but cannot hinder others from using the original shared information to develop similar products. Any improvements of the shared methods of BIOS, the Science Commons or other open-source communities must be made public, as well as any health hazards that are discovered.


Under an open-source contract between scientists, just like open-source software, developers would be free to use these methods to create new products. The products themselves would be proprietary, but the techniques and components used to make them would be open to all, meaning more bio-products, competition, smaller markets and faster improvements. . . [from David Cohn's article in Wired].
This is a good start. But modern science should remove all barriers to the free flow of scientific information. Most of us who do science don't do it for the money. We feel privileged that someone actually pays us to do what we love to do: figure out how the world works or figure out how to use science to make the world work better. Scientific progress won't stop because scientists no longer have to pay to get permission to use knowledge that should be held in common.

Scientists should not only look into these new forms of handling the fruits of their labor, but refuse to acquiesce to their institution's demands their work be patented or licensed. The tools provided by the Bios and Science Commons efforts along with publication in Open Access journals provide the means to take an alternate course of action more in keeping with the spirit of modern science.