Thursday, January 29, 2009

Keeping the Waters of Research Fresh with Open Access


It seems that in the field of law, as in, I am sure, many other fields, professors, academics, and practitioners often develop specific pet issues that they talk about and advocate for more than any other issues within their field of expertise. As an example, Lawrence Lessig is well-known for his defense of the commons in an increasingly IP-rights-encumbered creative sphere on the web, but he recently switched to advocating for publicly funded elections and a less money-driven congress.

Professor Michael Carroll is no exception. He sits on the board of the Creative Commons, teaches law in D.C., and keeps a well written, well thought out blog. But his pet issue right now, it seems, is open access to scholarly journal material.

It's not a hard issue to understand. Academic and scientific research is imperative for the growth of society, so it gets funded, often, by a mixture of corporate money and government grants. But then the fruits of that research can get locked up, sometimes in patents, but almost always in copyrighted journal articles. Carroll recognizes this for the impediment to progress that it is, and he is advocating for open access to scholarly journal articles, particularly those that are funded by the very same public that is denied access through scholarly writing copyrights.

Carroll's blog touches on this issue often (here, for example), but a recent post offers a great example of this open access being offered by people who understand very well the monetary incentives behind copyrights: economics scholars. In this post, Carroll profiles a company that offers a platform for open access to economics journal articles. They offer this platform freely to any takers, not charging a premium or a licence fee for those that choose to implement the platform. An excerpt from their "about page" begins, "As economists, you should be asking: why is “ free” a sensible business model? There are several reasons...."

And the several reasons are all economically sound ones (and actually relatively easy to understand, even as a non-econ person). The most persuasive to me, of course, is that this group, called Access Econ, "sincerely want[s] open-access to spread as rapidly and widely as possible, especially in economics. To nickel and dime people who share this vision seems completely self-defeating."

Indeed, Carroll loves that last bit, too. But can you blame him? Sure, offering economic incentives in the form of copyright to those doing the research is what keeps the research going, but sometimes the very long copyright duration on these kinds of things forces the pool of available literature on a scientific or scholarly topic to stagnate.

No innovation or progress can live healthily and flourish in such stagnant waters, so it's not hard to see why new ideas flowing into this pool all the time is clearly a good thing.

(photo cred: Interestingly enough, IP and cyberlaw Renaissance dude Joi Ito took the photo of Prof. Carroll I used above. Ito is the CEO of the Creative Commons, so naturally he made this image available under one of that company's most permissive licences.)

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