Creating the Global Information Commons for Science
An International Initiative of the
In collaboration with
The Global Information Commons for Science is a multi-stakeholder initiative arising from the second phase of the World Summit on the Information Society in Tunis in November 2005. The Initiative has the following goals:
(1) Improved understanding and increased awareness of the societal benefits of easy access to and use of scientific data and information, particularly those resulting from publicly funded research activities;
(2) Wide adoption of successful methods and models for providing open availability on a sustainable basis and facilitating reuse of publicly-funded scientific data and information, as well as cooperative sharing of research materials and tools among researchers;
(3) Encouragement and coordination of the efforts of the many stakeholders in the world’s diverse scientific community who are engaged in efforts to devise and implement effective means to achieve these objectives, with particular attention to developing countries.
All three goals will be promoted through the construction of an online “ open access knowledge space”, as well as specifically targeted projects carried out within the Initiative and in collaboration with its participating stakeholders.
Background and Rationale of this Initiative
The germinal ideas for this Initiative were planted at an international workshop at UNESCO Headquarters in Paris on 1-2 September 2005 on the theme “Creating the Information Commons for Science: Toward Institutional Policies and Guidelines for Action” [details of the Workshop rationale and proceedings, are available at: http://www.codata.org/archives/2005/UNESCOmtg/index.html.]. That event was o rganized by CODATA with the joint sponsorship of ICSU, ICSTI, INASP, UNESCO, and TWAS, and with the collaboration of the OECD. Accordingly, development of the Global Information Commons for Science Initiative (GICSI) currently is being undertaken through consultations among these and other organizations, with a view to launching it operationally at the earliest possible opportunity during 2006. A more detailed description of the initiative may be found at http://www.codata.org/wsis/GlobalCommonsforScienceSept1.html.
From the perspective of the research community, access to data and information has never before been as important as it is now. The rapid advances in digital technologies and networks over the past two decades have significantly altered and improved the ways that data and information can be produced, disseminated, managed, and used, both in science and in many other spheres of human endeavor. This progress in the emerging cyber-infrastructure has enabled scientists to perform quantitatively and qualitatively new functions to: collect and create unprecedented and ever-increasing amounts and types of raw data about all natural objects and phenomena; collapse the space and time in which data and information can be made available; facilitate entirely new forms of distributed research collaboration and information production; and integrate and transform the data resources into unlimited configurations of information, knowledge, and discovery. Perhaps the most significant and obvious manifestation of these developments has been the Internet’s effects in reducing the time and costs of producing and transmitting additional copies of data and information on a global basis to negligible levels.
Researchers in public science and engineering historically have been at the forefront of many of the basic technological advances underlying new paradigms of digitally networked information creation and dissemination activities. From their pressing needs to fashion more powerful information processing communications tools have sprung a wide array of the key elements of the “Information Society”. Such advances have included mainframe computers and packet-switched data networks, the TPC/IP protocols of the Internet and the World Wide Web, and still more recent innovations supporting Grid-computing and Web-based “middleware platforms” that facilitate the spatially distributed conduct of collaborative work. For essentially the same reasons, scientific research communities throughout the world also have led in efforts to develop many kinds of openly available digital resources, including open-source software, public-domain digital data archives and federated data networks, open institutional repositories for scientific pre-prints, journal publications and educational materials. Their members have been taking similarly active roles in organizing and maintaining a variety of open access electronic journals, some of them developing new editorial practices such as community-based open peer review. Box 1 provides examples of these activities.
New potentialities have thereby been opened for the improvement of human welfare through more efficient utilization of data and information, especially those arising from public investments in the conduct of scientific research. The digital network infrastructure, networked applications, and a myriad of organizations and activities that both exploit and promote their continuing elaboration can create unprecedented opportunities for accelerating the progress of science and innovation. Taken together, they are a part of the emerging broader movement in support of both formal and informal peer production and dissemination of information in a globally distributed, volunteer, and open networked environment. Such activities are based on principles that reflect the cooperative ethic that traditionally has imbued much of academic and (civilian) government research agencies; their norms and governance mechanisms may be said to characterize communities’ sharing use-rights in a “public domain of scientific information” rather than of a market system based upon proprietary rights of control over the uses of information.
There are many new kinds of distributed, open collaborative research and information production and dissemination on digital networks. Examples of open data and information production activities include:
The following are examples of open data and information dissemination and permanent retention:
The benefits derived from the availability of publicly funded scientific data and information, and hence society’s returns on the investments made in order to create those knowledge-assets, depends upon their being used. The open availability of digital resources from publicly-funded research at minimal transaction costs offers many advantages not only over secrecy, but in comparison with a closed, proprietary system that places high barriers to both access and subsequent re-use. Broad access to these publicly-funded information resources has many benefits: it reinforces open scientific inquiry, encourages diversity of analysis and opinion, promotes new research and new types of research, allows the verification of previous results, makes possible the testing of new or alternative hypotheses and methods of analysis, supports studies on data collection methods and measurement, facilitates the education of new researchers, enables the exploration of topics not envisioned by the initial investigators, permits the creation of new data sets when data from multiple sources are combined, helps transfer factual information to and promote capacity building in developing countries, promotes interdisciplinary, inter-sectoral, inter-institutional, and international research; and generally helps to maximize the research potential of new digital technologies and networks, thereby providing greater returns from the public investment in research.
At the same time, it is important to recognize that public policies in the developed and developing countries alike are shaped by legitimate considerations and interests that do not leave all scientific information and data in the public domain or under pure open access conditions, and thus impose some limitations upon openness and cooperation in the conduct of public research and the utilization of its findings. The resulting obstacles include those stemming from: national security concerns (including grey areas such as "dual use" or "sensitive but unclassified" information), the interests of private-sector parties in the legal protections that have been accorded to owners of rights to intellectual property rights such as patents and copyrights, and the practice of allowing publicly funded researchers limited periods of exclusive use of their data prior to the publication of their research findings. These limitations should be acknowledged as conveying some important benefits, not only to society at large but also to the pursuit of scientific knowledge itself. Intellectual property rights have served historically to create market conditions more encouraging to publication of scientific research and training materials than might otherwise exist, and patent protection has stimulated investment in the development and production of many new downstream applications. Similarly, allowing those who have undertaken the effort to generate and gather new experimental and observational data periods of exclusive control for careful analysis, interpretation and presentation of findings, forms part of the structure of incentives in the open science system, where rewards deriving from peer-recognition of researchers’ validated claims to have made significant new discoveries.
There is thus a need for public policy to judiciously seek a balance between positive and negative impacts upon the conduct of publicly funded research of granting and enforcing private ownership rights over scientific and technical data and information. Yet, in recent decades it has appeared to informed commentators that ‘the policy balance’ in this regard has been disrupted in ways that threaten the long-term vitality of fundamental scientific research, and all that depends upon it. Today, as is well known, the legal protections afforded to private property owners under the copyright regime extend far beyond the arena of printed texts and images, potentially covering all forms of data and information that can be digitally inscribed. In addition, novel statutes in many national jurisdictions have awarded sui generis intellectual property rights protection to parties that invest in creating databases containing all forms of information, whether it is or is not copyrightable. The patentability of inventions and discoveries now is very broadly construed, encompassing claims to information that formerly would have been deemed “facts of nature” and hence ineligible for protection; patents are issued on an unprecedented scale to inventors of research tools and techniques in many fields of science, notably in the biomedical and computer sciences. Technical information that in former times would most likely have been left in the public domain now tends to be appropriated swiftly as intellectual property – not necessary in anticipation of significant streams of revenues flowing to the possessor as a result of the demands by other for its use, but, instead, because it has potential value as a defensive or aggressive instrument to be deployed in future negotiations or litigation arising from patent infringement suits. And restrictive licensing practices and increasingly effective digital rights management technologies provide additional layers of enclosure, even beyond those conferred by statutes.
In short, the past quarter-century has seen the emergence of a pronounced world-wide trend toward the commoditization of publicly funded research outputs, including the underlying data and information resources. This tendency has gained impetus from the intensification of global economic competition, and the continuing fiscal pressures upon governments. Undoubtedly, it also has been reinforced by the creation of new legal rights and enforcement mechanisms in response to interests and pressure that largely are extrinsic to the scientific enterprise even though they increasingly are coming to impinge upon the conduct of public research.
In view of the “public goods” properties of data and information resources – which permit their concurrent use and reuse at negligible incremental costs by a multitude of parties who are able to benefit from the content with without depleting it – it would be unreasonable to ignore the losses in the efficiency and effectiveness of the research system that are imposed by unnecessarily balkanized and closed access regimes. The negative impacts of the barriers to information sharing and collaborations are not confined to losses that come in the form of exploratory research opportunities that remain unexploited due to the time and costs of securing rights to use essential research tools and data that are owned by private parties; they ramify through the system, adversely affecting both private and public rates of returns from investments in applications-oriented R&D, in limitations upon the extent of the benefits from wider diffusion of innovations, and contributing to widening the gap between the level of scientific capabilities and innovation capacities in member nations of the OECD and those in the developing countries.
The sources of these problematic developments do not reside wholly in the policies pursued by the developed nations. Public information regimes for scientific data produced in developing countries are among the least open in the world. In addition to the economic and organizational limitations on the capabilities of the government apparatus for gathering and distributing such data, and the political restrictions placed upon disclosure of information regarding social and economic conditions, access to scientific data and information has been inhibited by researchers' and research institutions' suspicions that free and open information exchanges, like free trade, will turn out not to be "fair" trade. The marked asymmetries between rich-country and poor-country partners in the division of intellectual property rights from new discoveries and inventions have certainly contributed to undermine an ethos of scientific cooperation in some fields, perhaps most notably in the life sciences.
Many complex public policy issues are posed by the changing balance between the benefits and drawbacks of privatization and commercialization of data and information as these affect public-sector science, along with similar trade-offs involved in the granting of intellectual property rights and imposing government restrictions upon certain kinds of research. These policy quandaries will resist quick and simple solutions. Nevertheless, notice of the broad trends reviewed here has been sufficient to prompt increasingly frequent expressions of concern about their potential effects on the balance between exploratory science and commercially-oriented applied research among the various domain sciences, and upon the sustainability of the norms of open scientific cooperation and active collaboration that have in the past characterized academic research communities. Some commentators have voiced the more explicit worry that continued pressures for the commoditization of information and the privatizing of scientific and technical data could significantly disrupt established scientific research practices and so threaten the loss of those new and exciting research opportunities – indeed the very opportunities that ongoing advances in digital networks and related technologies are creating.
This state of affairs has elicited calls for a halt to policies of commercialization or privatization of the publication of data generated by government agencies in the performance of public functions. Support has been mobilized in some regions to resist further extension of (or “harmonization” with) recently strengthened intellectual property protections. There also is increasing discussion of proposed statutory reforms (such as exempting public research from patent infringement suits) intended to mitigate the effects of future encroachments upon the public domain of scientific and technical data and information.
Further, spurred by the rising prices charged for scientific journals and the implications this has had for research library acquisition of those publications by public research institutions, a world-wide movement for “open access” to the research literature produced from public funding has flowered in the past few years. More than 1700 scholarly journals are now provided on the Internet under a variety of conditions self-described as “open access.” These have included a number of especially noteworthy initiatives such as the Public Library of Science and BioMed Central in OECD countries, and the SciELO and Bioline International initiatives in developing countries, among others. Policy principles on open access to publicly funded journals have been issued in both the United States and Europe in 2003 through the "Bethesda Principles" and the "Berlin Declaration," and in 2004 many professional society journal publishers produced the "DC Principles," which also recognized the imperative of broad access to the scholarly literature produced from publicly funded research. Some commercial and learned society journal publishers have begun to experiment with various forms of “open access” to the contents of their publications as well.
Beyond the recognized need for careful articulation, closer assessment and greater coordination of the foregoing variety of proposals and ongoing initiatives, it is becoming increasingly apparent that there is another and rather different approach whose practical aspects merit wide attention and support to its further development. The proposed approach consists of the voluntary use of the rights held by intellectual property owners, which allow them to construct by means of licensing contracts conditions of “common-use” that emulate the key features of the public domain which are most beneficial for collaborative research in all its forms. The intention is to form legal coalitions or “clubs” for the cooperative use of scientific data, information, materials and research tools that actually are not in the public domain, and whose licensed use is therefore legally protected by an intellectual property regime. Such an undertaking may be properly described as creating “the global information commons for science”, inasmuch as a “common” constitutes a collectively held and managed bundle of resources to which access by cooperating parties is rendered open (though perhaps limited as to extent or use) under minimal transactions cost conditions.
The economic logic and practical feasibility of the “contractually constructed commons” approach to counteracting the deleterious effects of encroachments made upon the public domain by intellectual property rights claims rests on three sets of propositions. Firstly, as noted, information and data have special, “public goods” properties that make them very different from physical resources like land. Hence the economic case for private ownership of intellectual property rights cannot be based on analogical reasoning from the case of land and other depletable resources that are subject to being degraded or destroyed by “over-use.” Secondly, even tangible resources such as land, when they are not privately owned, may be and have been managed well under systems of common-use rights. Because common-use can be regulated by non-market mechanisms constructed as systems of customary rights and restraints, historically it was deliberate acts if private ‘enclosure’ rather than some imagined “tragedy” of over-grazing that typically spelled the end of the agrarian commons. Thirdly, the legal system today makes it possible for the owners of a tangible resource held in common to protect their collective use-rights, and manage their contractually constructed common-pool so as to sustain and augment the benefits that it yields. In consequence, because information cannot be depleted by overuse, individuals having private ownership rights in intellectual property may voluntarily use contracts to construct a common use-rights area that is all inclusive, in granting access to those wishing to use the contents. Furthermore, and because the common in this case is owned and not part of the public domain, the benefits that all users can enjoy from such an arrangement may be preserved and enhanced. This can be accomplished by reserving the legal right to exclude certain usage-practices that might otherwise undermine the willingness of others to similarly pool the information that they have created.
The respective rights of the participants in the public research system can be most effectively mediated through the use of contracts at the individual researcher, institutional, and governmental levels. Common-use licensing approaches that promote broad access and reuse rather than restrict it, such as those being developed by the new Science Commons under the Creative Commons (see http://science.creativecommons.org), can preserve essential ownership rights while maximizing the social benefits and returns on the public investments in research. The proposed Initiative thus will form a distinct and important part of the larger effort to attain a productive balance between the domains of proprietary R&D and publicly funded open science by devising and promoting new social and legal structures that will be especially well-suited for the future conduct of collaborative research in many domains of science. Its success will promote the global mobilization of knowledge-generating talents and material resources that can address the problems and aspirations of humanity in the new millennium.
Toward a Global Initiative
The Initiative, strategically focused on advancing the contractual construction of information commons for science, can significantly enhance the effectiveness of the institutional infrastructure for research and research training throughout many parts of the world. Collaboration on this initiative by a consortium of the major international scientific organizations—the International Council for Science (ICSU), the international Committee on Data for Science and Technology ( CODATA ), the International Council for Scientific and Technical Information (ICSTI), the International Network for the Availability of Scientific Publications (INASP), and the World Data Centers, in collaboration with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the Inter-Academy Panel on International Issues (IAP), the Academy of Sciences of the Developing World (TWAS), and the Science Commons, among others—will provide an unprecedented opportunity to develop a shared understanding and greater capability to adapt and implement this approach to public access to scientific data and information at institutional, national, and international levels.
All of the organizations listed here have a strong interest in the goals associated with this Initiative. In a recent Priority Assessment Report on Scientific Data and Information commissioned by ICSU, the report recommended that “ICSU should assume an international leadership role in identifying and addressing critical policy and management issues related to scientific data and information”, and that ICSU should “develop a long-term strategic framework for scientific data and information (policies, practices, and infrastructure)”. The Global Information Commons for Science Initiative is proposed as a major aspect of the implementation of this new plan by ICSU and its data and information constituent bodies, including CODATA , ICSTI, INASP, and WDC.
[Note: additional info about the support by the other collaborating orgs will be added here.]
The rationalization of policies and practices across nations, institutions, and disciplines may be expected to result in much greater social and economic impact from the investment in public research overall by enabling greater access to and use of scientific data and information resources, and by facilitating interdisciplinary and international cooperation in public science and education. Because of the international scope of digital networks and research collaborations, strategic international approaches for building the information commons are both necessary and desirable. In short, the adoption of the many promising new open access initiatives from the bottom up, coupled with the recent introduction of some new top-down legislative and policy proposals in several countries, make this an appropriate time to undertake a comprehensive review of what has been learned, to develop an integrating strategic framework and vision for the future.
Funding will be sought to establish a small Secretariat to implement the Global Information Commons for Science Initiative for an initial 3-year period. Progress will be reviewed by the partner organizations after the first two years of operation to determine whether the Initiative should continue beyond the nominal period of performance and, if so, whether any revisions to the focus, scope, and structure need to be made.
The Secretariat will be staffed at a minimum by a director with expertise in public research and information policy. The director will be supported by a part-time systems architect who can help articulate and document the requirements for establishing a “knowledge environment” and manage the Web strategy, as well as by a part-time content manager who can create and edit content, can keep the portal fresh, and also can solicit input from visitors and users. Both the systems architect and the content manager may be hired as off-site professional consultants. A part-time on-site administrative assistant also will be hired to support the director and the activities of the Initiative. Other staff may be added, depending on the work program that is adopted and the available funding.
A Board of Directors consisting of representatives appointed by the principal partner organizations will provide management oversight for the Initiative. An external Advisory Board will contribute independent substantive advice and programmatic review from practicing researchers familiar with the major domain sciences, legal scholars with expertise in intellectual property and contract law, and social scientists with relevant empirical and economic policy expertise. The Board of Directors will meet once per year and the Advisory Board twice per year.
Planned Activities to Implement the Initiative
The Global Information Commons for Science Initiative will be focused on research and analysis, promotion of successful policies and practices, and coordination of activities among the stakeholders. More specifically, the Initiative will promote the following goals and a spectrum of related activities, all of which will be supported by a vigorous Web presence through the development of an online “open access knowledge space”. Such a knowledge space would use enhanced functions based on established and emerging open Web services, allowing users to move among and integrate different information resources more easily in support of the established goals.
The research and analysis activities will be focused on the following areas of inquiry that are necessary to promote broad and meaningful availability and use of publicly-funded data and information:
It is understood that the secretariat itself will be unable to perform all this research in-house. Working with the Board of Directors and the Advisory Board, and subject to the availability of funds and the interest of sponsors, the director will commission selected experts to produce white papers, convene workshops and symposia, and in particular leverage the resources of the partner organizations and other stakeholder groups to conduct a coordinated suite of studies on an agreed research agenda that will further the goals of the Global Information Commons for Science. The results of these and other related studies will be made available through the initiative’s Web portal, as described further below.
(2) Wide adoption of successful methods and models for providing open availability on a sustainable basis and facilitating reuse of publicly-funded scientific data and information, as well as cooperative sharing of research materials and tools among researchers.
Another major aspect of the initiative will be a comprehensive cataloguing and characterization of different methods and models of data and information access, with a view to providing successful examples of such activities for their broader adoption in analogous contexts within the scientific community. The Web portal will serve as a repository for these many examples, either linking to other such compilations of information that already exist (e.g., the Lund University registry of open access journals or the Southampton University registry of open access institutional repositories) or developing new ones (e.g., a registry of open access data centers and networks). Examples might include: an assessment and implementation of best practices for archiving data linked to publications; the development of a description language for scientific tools (so that existing search engines such as Google can be deployed by scientists looking for tools inside the Commons); and networks of machine-readable “facts” published to the web under the new Semantic Web standards created by Tim Berners-Lee and the World Wide Web Consortium.
(3) Encouragement and coordination of the efforts of the many stakeholders in the world’s diverse scientific community who are engaged in efforts to devise and implement effective means to achieve these objectives, with particular attention to developing countries.
Finally, the Secretariat will work closely with the partner organizations and their large constituencies in the global public research community to reach out to the many stakeholder groups, establish channels of communication with them, and help to coordinate their efforts in pursuing common(s) objectives. The primary stakeholders in this Initiative include all researchers worldwide and those associated with the public research system, including governmental science policy and funding agencies, governmental research organizations, universities and not-for-profit research institutes, science and engineering academies, learned and professional societies, publishers and other information disseminators, research libraries and archives, data centers, and individual researchers and information specialists. The international scientific organizations initially collaborating on this Initiative are broadly representative of many of these constituencies, while many others will be added over time to improve coordination and communication.
Near-term planned activities
See Esanu, J. and P. F. Uhlir, eds. (2003), The Role of Scientific and Technical Data and Information in the Public Domain: Proceedings of a Symposium, Washington, D.C.: Academy Press [available at http://books.nap.edu/catalog/10785.html];
See David, P. A. (2003), “The Economic Logic of ‘Open Science’ and the Balance between Private Property Rights and the Public Domain in Scientific Data and Information: A Primer,” in Ibid.; P..Arzberger, et al . (2004), “Promoting Access to Public Research Data for Science, Economic, and Social Development”, Data Science Journal, CODATA, p. 135-152.
Reichman, J.H, and P. F. Uhlir (Spring 1999), “Database Protection at the Crossroads: Recent Developments and Their Impact on Science and Technology”, Berkeley Technology Law Journal, Vol. 14, No. 2, at 819-821; and Uhlir, Paul F., and Peter Schröder (publication pending), “Maximizing the Value of Public Scientific Data for Global Science”, Data Science Journal, CODATA.
See David, P. A. (2004),“Can ‘Open Science’ be Protected from the Evolving Regime of Intellectual Property Rights Protections,” Journal of Theoretical and Institutional Economics, 160: pp.1-26 [Pre-print draft available at http://siepr.stanford.edu/papers/pdf/02-42.html.]; David, P. A. (2005), “ Koyaanisqatsi in Cyberspace: The economics of an ‘out-of-balance’ regime of private property rights in data and information,” Ch. 4 inInternational Public Goods and Technology Transfers under a Globalized International Property Regime, eds. J.H. Reichman and K. Maskus. [Pre-print draft available at: http://siepr.stanford.edu/papers/pdf/02-29.html].
See generally Reichman, J.H. and P. F.Uhlir, (2003), “A Contractually Constructed Research Commons for Scientific Data in a Highly Protectionist Intellectual Property Environment,” Journal of Law and Contemporary Problems, 66 (315).
Ibid.; see also David, P. A. and M. Spence (2003), “Toward Institutional Infrastructures for e-Science: The Scope of the Challenges,” A Report to the Joint Information Systems Committee of the Research Councils of Great Britain, Oxford Internet Institute Report No. 2. (September) [Available at: http://ww w.oii.ox.ac.uk/resources/publications/OIIRR_E-Science_0903.pdf ].
Application of this legal tactic has proved to be highly effective in the case of the open source software licensing under the terms of the GNU General Public License, it does not necessarily depend upon the particular “copyleft” (so-called “viral”) features of that license. It should be obvious from the presentation of the nature of the Global Information Commons for Science Initiative (as it is from the dependence of “free and open source software” upon copyright law) that the challenge of building a “common” in the sense intended here should not be misconstrued as the pursuit of a utopian dream to return to some imagined golden age when property rights did not exist.