A Renaissance of the Science Commons

In recent years, the story of the scientific commons has been chiefly one of enclosure: the privatization of research, new limits of how knowledge may flow, and worsening ethical conflicts of interest. But now, surprisingly, there is a burst of good news.

Thanks to a variety of innovations in Internet-based software and networking, academic scientists are laying the foundation for new online genres of sharing and collaboration. I call this neglected trend the “renaissance of the science commons.”

The enclosure of the scientific commons has been documented in depressing detail by several important books. Jennifer Washburn’s University, Inc., Derek Bok’s Universities in the Marketplace, Sheldon Krimsky’s Science in the Private Interest, and Corynne McSherry’s Who Owns Academic Work provide a thorough survey of the many types of market enclosure now underway in academic science.

These books show how corporations are skewing university research priorities from long-term basic R&D to short-term, applied commercial research. Companies are demanding secrecy and publication delays as conditions of their partnerships, which in turn prevent scientists from verifying each other’s findings and building upon them. Companies are offering lucrative consultancies and stock equity plans for researchers, which introduce worrisome ethical conflicts-of-interest. Because of the Bayh-Dole Act, companies and universities are allowed to patent valuable taxpayer-financed research, and then rip off taxpayers a second time by forcing them to pay higher prices, as consumers, for the drugs and other products.

The unexpected good news is that an increasing number of scientific disciplines and universities are reclaiming control over their work. Chastened by some of the pernicious influences of the market, and excited about the autonomy and efficiencies that Internet-based innovations enable, academic science is reinventing many of its core practices by creating online commons.

The more far-sighted universities, scientific disciplines and academic journals are starting to realize that one of the best ways to honor and protect some basic values of science – sharing, collaboration, open debate – in the face of market pressures to limit these practices, is to develop their own online commons. A commons can help them overcome barriers to the free flow of information that markets tend to erect.

It helps to remember that scientific inquiry is fundamentally a creature of the commons, not the market. It is driven by peer groups that govern themselves and their shared research by their own professional ideals, standards and social norms. Most scientists regard market values as secondary and even hostile to the core mission of science. Just ask scientists whom they respect more as a scientist – Craig Ventor, the entrepreneur who tried to own the human genome, or Jonas Salk, who considered the patenting of the polio vaccine repugnant to the public mission of science.

A key reason why academic science is wary about over-propertizing knowledge is the impact that it can have on the whole scientific enterprise. An overly broad expansion and fragmentation of property rights over scientific knowledge can end up paralyzing research innovation. Over the long term, this, in turn, can stifle the development of markets.

Professors Michael A. Heller and Rebecca S. Eisenberg call this problem the “tragedy of the anti-commons.” This is a circumstance in which “multiple owners each have a [property] right to exclude others…and no one has an effective privilege of use.” An anti-commons exists when property rights are too numerous and fragmented to allow the sharing and re-use of knowledge. The commons is disabled.

Once an anti-commons emerges, write Heller and Eisenberg, “collecting rights into usable private property is often brutal and slow.” The search for treatments or vaccines for malaria is plagued by this problem, for example, because researchers cannot afford to clear the rights to dozens of research tools, proprietary reagents and software, etc. The tragedy of the anti-commons is not confined to science. It also affects such fields as filmmaking, where rights-clearances for film excerpts can be extraordinary costly and administratively difficult to consummate, thereby impairing new creativity in film.

Leveraging the Commons for Science

As far as I know, no taxonomy has yet been devised for the many scientific endeavors (many of them Internet-based) that function as commons. My own review suggests that a rich variety of scientific commons might be classified under three general (and somewhat overlapping) categories: 1) commons made possible by new software architectures; 2) commons based on innovative legal structures; and 3) institutional commons.

Software Architectures. Websites and blogs have proven to be the workhorses of networked communities. They are highly efficient vehicles for assembling, organizing, archiving and disseminating new information, and for hosting ongoing dialogue and debates. Many websites skillfully leverage decentralized “surplus capital” (unused computer CPU time) and volunteers to do important scientific work.

An example: NASA’s Clickworkers invites Internet users to identify and classify craters on Mars based on satellite images of the planet’s surface. The work, normally conducted by graduate students or scientists over the course of months, is now done for free, by thousands of Internet volunteers whose quality of work rivals that of trained geologists.

Wikis — a web application that allows anyone to add and edit content on a collaborative website — are also important vehicles for scientific collaboration. In essence, wikis enable a group of users to assemble, review and modify a body of writing in a cumulative way. Wikipedia may be the best-known wiki; it has compiled more than 600,000 articles in four years. But there are more than 1,000 public wikis out there and countless private wikis.

Wikis leverage the sharing and collaboration that lie at the heart of science, helping to develop some fundamentally different sorts of knowledge. I am particularly intrigued by the recently established Flu Wiki which may come to rival the CDC and WHO in its ability to track the outbreaks and movements of flu viruses.

Peer-to-peer file sharing networks — better known for facilitating illegal music downloads — are playing an important role in scientific research. The great advantage of P2P architecture is that it allows dispersed members of an online group to quickly and directly exchange data without relying on a central server. Far-flung participants from different institutions can thus be immersed in the same virtual working environment and collaborate much more effectively than they can in the more traditional networking structure of centralized computer servers and clients.

One of the most advanced public initiatives in applying P2P architecture is Bioinformatics.org, the Open Lab at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. This project provides decentralized networking tools to researchers so they can work together in solving information problems in bioinformatics. Bioinformatics.org has more than 14,000 members and 200 projects that it is hosting. In some ways, the very emergence of the bioinformatics discipline could not have occurred without computer networks and the commons they make possible.

The new software architectures are literally making possible new forms of scientific inquiry and knowledge, such as computational biology. As patents and copyrights assert proprietary claims over shared resources, enterprising minds within science are declaring that it may be time for an open source biology movement. I know of two important initiatives in this area; there are probably others.

Richard Jefferson’s Australia-based group, Cambia, has been creating new non-proprietary research tools and technologies for more than a decade. Its BiOS Initiative — Biological Innovation for an Open Society — develops and validates new means for cooperative invention of life sciences technologies. It recently launched a set of BiOS licenses, inspired by open source software licenses, that are intended to create a “protected commons,” in which an invention can be improved by the ideas of many, without anyone patenting it.

The Tropical Disease Initiative, or TDI, is another experiment in open source drug development. Its goal is to use the bottom-up, self-organizing methods of open source software to develop innovative new drugs. “With open and collaborative approaches, generally,” says Duke Law Professor Arti Rai, one of the founders of TDI, “there may be room for creativity or the possibility of creativity that wouldn’t come if you just had one pharmaceutical company working on a drug.”

Innovative Legal Structures. Key to the success of commons-based solutions are legal licenses and structures that protect the integrity of the commons while enabling follow-on innovation and even commercialization. One of the most catalytic innovations in this whole area, of course, was the General Public License (GPL) for free software developed by the Free Software Foundation. It was the basis for open source licenses, many of which allow the private commercialization of derivative code.

The GPL was an inspiration for the Creative Commons licenses developed for creative works and information. The CC licenses are voluntary, private licenses that creators may use to notify potential users in advance that copyrighted works may be freely used in stipulated ways, often with commercial rights retained by the creator. A spinoff of the Creative Commons, the Science Commons, is now exploring analogous agreements for various scientific fields.

The Cambia BiOS licenses are another direct descendent of the GPL and Creative Commons licenses, albeit for patented technologies. There are also open-source licenses for ongoing research conducted by the International HapMap Project, which maps variations in the human genome. Once data is completed, however, it is placed in the public domain, and any follow-on discoveries are eligible for patenting.

Besides licenses, we could stand some visionary legal innovations in implementing a meaningful development agenda that takes account of intellectual property policies. A good place to start would be to recognize the important role placed by the commons in spurring innovation, creating economic wealth and advancing social equity. This may be a difficult, long-term proposition, however, given WIPO’s entrenched commitment to traditional IP paradigm.

In the meantime, I am intrigued by the proposed treaty for medical R&D that the Consumer Project on Technology and scores of scientists, health organizations and others have presented to the World Health Organization’s Executive Board and the WHO Commission on Intellectual Property, Innovation and Health (CIPIH). The treaty’s backers point out that stronger intellectual property rights and high drug prices do create incentives to invest in medical innovation, but they also have serious unacknowledged costs: the rationing of access to medicine, misleading and costly marketing, barriers to follow-on research, and an aversion to risky basic research for innovative drugs and treatments for the poor.

The treaty proposal (which is too complicated to explain here) would go a long way toward financing new pharmaceuticals on a sustainable basis while making them more accessible and affordable to people, especially in developing countries.

Institutional Commons. Finally, many academic institutions and independent organizations are taking the initiative to create their own commons. M.I.T. has famously created its OpenCourseWare program to place all of its curricular materials online. At Brown University, the Decameron Web is a fascinating open web platform that brings together a vast global community of professors and students of all ages to study Boccaccio’s Decameron in truly novel, interactive ways.

At Rice University, Connexions is an international, interdisciplinary “content commons” that provides free scholarly materials and a powerful set of free software tools to help authors publish and collaborate; instructors to build and share custom courses; and learners to explore the links among concepts, courses, and disciplines. It now has more than one million people from 157 countries tapping into over 2,500 modules. Almost 100 courses have been developed by a worldwide community of authors.

One of the most exciting developments in terms of institutional commons is the explosion in open access scholarly publishing. The Directory of Open Access Journals currently lists more than 1,700 scholarly and scientific journals that are published on an open access basis — a number that grows by several hundred every month. Why should scientific disciplines and universities hand over their intellectual work to commercial journals — who then charge very high prices to publish it — when online commons can give the creators far greater control while enabling much broader distribution and citation, for free?

Open access journals have obvious benefits in stimulating the free flow of knowledge and collaboration. Scientific discoveries can more quickly be applied in clinical tests. The identification of promising research strategies and the rooting out of errors can move more rapidly. The benefits are especially important to developing countries, where timely and reliable medical knowledge may otherwise be locked up in expensive commercial journals.

The U.S. National Institutes for Health have helped legitimate the move to open access publishing with its recent requirement that federally financed research be made available under limited open-access rules. This trend is gaining further momentum now that the Wellcome Trust and Research Councils U.K. are also supporting open access publishing. This promises to catalyze sweeping changes in how scientific research will be disseminated and made accessible in the future.

What’s really interesting is how the open-access ethic is spreading to new and unexpected areas. For example, as publishers try to assert ever stronger control over their textbooks — to the extent of “renting” digital copies that “evaporate” after twelve months — a number of open-source textbook initiatives have arisen. These include the California Open Source Textbook Project, the Open Textbook Project, and Wikibooks. There are also hybrid initiatives like BookPower, whose ebooks are free to developing countries.

If there are any common denominators to these many science commons that I have mentioned, it is that each represents a social community — literally or figuratively — that is leveraging online networks to create and retain value. I realize this definition may stretch the meaning of the word “community” because in some instances the “community” may consist of strangers interacting impersonally. In such instances, the commons consists of a group of people with shared interests using the Internet as a hyper-efficient vehicle for creating valuable public goods (research, data, archives, indices, annotations).

The Commons and Intellectual Property Policy

The trends that I have sketched here have not been fully crystallized. Nor are they fully integrated with each other. Nor are they widely recognized and understood. But many activities and forces associated with the commons are clearly converging. They offer some wonderful opportunities for diverse scientific and user communities to gain greater control over their own work, and to democratize access to the information and culture of humankind.

The powers of open source software; the efficiencies of online commons; the growth of open access publishing; the rise of new types of software-based commons for research and learning; the new legal licenses for maintaining these commons; the new treaty ideas for facilitating the spread and use of knowledge — all of these trends are gaining momentum at the very moment when people’s frustrations are growing at the rising costs, inefficiencies, inequities and barriers that conventional intellectual property regimes are imposing.

At the moment, this is a movement without a name. But there are enough straws in the wind for anyone to realize that new models of value creation are a-bornin’. It is posing significant challenges to our conventional understandings of how innovation and wealth occur.

When Brazil threatens to break patents for AIDS drugs in order to fight that awful disease; when many national governments such as China and Brazil reject Microsoft products in order to embrace open source software as their national standard; when IBM gives away free access to 500 of its software patents in order to leverage open source communities and innovation; when highly respected legal theorists and nonprofit organizations propose commons-based strategies for overcoming patent problems, new types of international cooperation to finance drugs, and new IP regimes to stimulate development; when the benefits of open source software and open access publishing begin to fuel an open science movement, as they have — all this suggests the beginnings of — if you’ll excuse the over-used metaphor — a paradigm shift.

I like to talk about the commons because it helps us recognize some inherent limitations of neoliberal policy discourse in understanding these phenomena. It helps us recognize and explain the growing benefits of sharing and collaboration via electronic networks.

To talk about the commons is to recognize that there are other genres of solutions — beyond stricter IP controls — that deserve serious consideration. To talk about the commons is to acknowledge that our interests as market participants, whether as investors or consumers, are only one part of who we are as human beings. For all of the market’s many practical virtues, we also care about social equity, openness, the consent of the governed, and the satisfactions that come from working cooperatively toward shared goals. The commons not only helps us acknowledge these other values, it helps up operationalize them. That may be its greatest appeal.

To be sure, a commons is no magic formula. It must be properly designed and supported through public policies and other means — just as any functioning market must. A commons must devise certain rules and cultivate certain social norms for managing the shared resource. There must be transparency, and sanctions against privatization. And so on. But current trends suggest that the commons as a tool for science has a very bright future indeed.