Free and Open Data as a Worldwide Economic Engine

October 22, 2012

 —Cameron Neylon is Advocacy Director at PLOS. Previously, he was a Senior Scientist at the UK Science and Technology Facilities Council and a faculty member at the University of Southampton. The opinions expressed are those of PLOS.–

California’s governor, referring as much to the state’s financial issues as its lead in technology, has signed into law a new fund to create 50 open-source undergraduate textbooks, as well as a digital library to host them. By being digital, the textbooks will be able to evolve rapidly as the needs of students and the state of knowledge change, but more importantly they will be made available under a Creative Commons license, allowing any individual or organization, anywhere in the world, to read, use, and remix the content.

This small-scale experiment is part of a large and fast growing effort to extend these Creative Commons’ principles to all publicly funded research (and the publishing and educational systems linking research to application and education), but this implementation of open access offers as much to business as it does to academic researchers and students.

It’s not always easy for us researchers to stomach the idea of others making money off of our work, but at PLOS, when we say “open access”, we have always meant more than just making the literature of research readable. When we publish articles under a Creative Commons Attribution (CC-BY) license, we intend that any person (or computer) is free to use the work, to combine it with other information or data, and to create new works out of it, for any legal purpose – including commercial re-use.

When looking at commercial development, or other places where research is applied, you don’t often see the close involvement of the academic researchers, but usually the work is taken from the lab to the factory, or a team made up of both academic and commercial expertise is required. Perhaps more important is that commercial products are almost invariably based on many pieces of research. Similarly, innovation in the data space comes from combining multiple data sets, and this is only going to increase.

Asking for and granting permission on a case by case basis simply doesn’t scale. Using the right licensing approaches to guarantee the rights of downstream users is an approach that does scale. The web enables us to share research outputs effectively, but if we want to fully exploit its power as a communication network operating at a massive scale we need to build mechanisms that can work at that scale. As well as supporting non-commercial sharing and information transfer, it opens huge commercial markets – connections will not be made as effectively if we block off commercial use.

The human genome project generated, in the US alone, $141 for every dollar spent, but that benefit is highly distributed and highly interconnected. The entire discipline of bioinformatics was built on the availability of data from gene sequencing, and protein structure, and accelerated by the sharing of the tools and the algorithms they were built on.  These happened before our current legal tools were developed but rely completely on the assumption that the data could be used and re-used.

Beyond the legal rights, we need to ensure that the data and information we publish is also technically useable. Just as asking permission for each dataset does not scale, neither does manually reformatting each of them. Here there is a lot of room for improvement. What standards we have for sharing information are imperfect and often not widely used. Publishers need to keep challenging themselves to provide this information in more useable forms. We need better tagging, better formats, and better ways of describing what we are sharing to support as many different types of re-use as possible.

The tenth annual International Open Access Week starts on 22 October, capping an eventful year for a movement experiencing massive growth and new influence as governments and funders move to embrace open access. Funders including the World Bank and the UK’s Wellcome Trust, and governments including the European Union, Britain, Denmark and Brazil, have all taken a stand calling for the expansion of access to the publications arising from publicly funded research. A decade ago this was a revolutionary concept but today it is becoming an integral part of governments’ efforts to contain costs and gain the maximum benefits from public funding, which will benefit not just academia, but any business sector.


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