Open source and open access

In response to last week's column, Open source education, Steve Saunders writes:

It's worth noting that the Open Source notion -- the esthetic, the mechanic, the principle, whatever you want to call it -- originated in (and is largely based upon) academia. It goes back to the pre-web days of the Internet, when most participants were academic. Look at the principle of peer reviewed science: it is, essentially, Open Source research. This is NOT an educational innovation; the innovation lies in bringing those academic freedoms to the commercial and the private worlds, where trade secrets and competitive advantage would seem at first glance (and did so (and do so) to many) to make such an approach suicidal...except, self-evidently, they do not.
True enough. An important question, though, is whether academia itself continues to uphold the tradition from which open source draws its inspiration.

Consider John Abramson's indictment of our system of medical research. He alleges that as the sources of funding have shifted from government to private enterprise, access to primary data is increasingly restricted:

Drug companies often keep the results of their studies secret, even from their own researchers [my emphasis], on the grounds that such results are "proprietary information" of economic value.

Last month I asked a university chemist if he blogs about his work. "There's nothing I can say," he told me. "My web page is a CV with a list of copyrighted publications."

Open access has prevailed since 1991 in those fields served by the LANL archive: physics, mathematics, computer science, quantitative biology. And there is a thriving open access movement that aims to leverage the economics of web publishing to freely distribute many other kinds of research. The NIH policy on public access to NIH-funded research gives that initiative a major boost.

But if academic research fully exploited the power of the web, there would be no need for an open access movement. And even if that movement were to succeed in opening up all taxpayer-funded work, we'd be left without access to the large and growing share of privatized research. If you believe that the open source dynamic is critical to the advancement of knowledge, and I do, there are a couple of ways we might proceed. Governnment could, once again, play a more dominant role in funding research. Or private enterprise could decide that open access -- to basic research, at least -- works to its benefit.

Of the two approaches, I think I'd favor the latter. Especially if government's role were to reward business -- e.g., with tax breaks -- for contributing basic research to the commons.

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