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News from the open access movement

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Richard Poynder interviews Richard Jefferson

Richard Poynder has posted his interview with Richard Jefferson, a leader of open-source biology and the founder and CEO of CAMBIA. This is the latest installment of The Basement Interviews, Poynder's blog-based OA book of interviews with leaders of many related openness initiatives.  Excerpt:

...By now Jefferson had become convinced of the importance of making the basic tools of biotechnology freely available to all. Increasingly appalled at the way biotech was developing, he concluded that, whatever other people might do, he at least could act differently. In short, he decided to share [his gene reporter system, GUS] with the world.

So in 1987 he prepared 10,000 tubes of DNA sequences for use with GUS, wrote a comprehensive manual explaining how to use it with plants, and distributed lab packs to 500 research institutions around the world....Within a short space of time GUS was the most widely used reporter gene in the field....

In short, although at the time not conscious of the parallel, Jefferson had independently come up with the same strategy as the Free Software Foundation (FSF), which was later to blossom into the Open Source Software Movement. GUS became first choice for molecular biologists for the same reason as the Open Source server Apache has become the most widely used web server software on the Internet: it was freely available, and it worked!...

As a consequence, GUS was to prove instrumental in helping scientists around the world create more efficient varieties of maize, wheat, rice, soybean and cotton....Excited by this turn of events Jefferson began to a hatch plan for a much grander project. Wouldn’t it be great, he thought, if he could generalise what he had achieved with GUS throughout biotechnology?...

CAMBIA [is] umbrella organisation for the BiOS initiative.  And the BiOS initiative consists of three separate projects: a licensing infrastructure to enable the sharing of biotech tools in a non-proprietary manner; a web-based collaboration platform; and a patent database. The BiOS licences, then, are designed to actively encourage collaboration and technology sharing, and to discourage exclusiveness and hoarding....

[T]he way to avoid [harmful patent lock-up], says Jefferson, is Biological Open Source. That is, to re-craft the innovation infrastructure in a way that allows developers of biotech "applications" to assert proprietary rights over their "products", and to profit from that if they wish, while leaving the core tools and "operating systems" of molecular biology freely available to anyone who wants to use them. Only by moving to that position, he says, will we be able to introduce fair and open competition in biotechnology.

In short, biotechnologists need to adopt the same model as Open Source software developers, where the lower levels of the stack (the operating systems) are — like GNU/Linux — freely available to everyone, while the higher level applications built on top of these operating systems are able to be exploited in a proprietary way....This model, argues Jefferson, encourages innovation while avoiding harmful monopolisation....

RP: In talking about Biological Open Source you make frequent comparisons with the Open Source Software Movement. There are a growing number of other "free" and "open" movements today, including Open Access, Creative Commons, Open Data, Open Spectrum, Open Journalism, Open Politics, and so on. Why do you think all these open movements are springing up? What's the big picture here?

RJ: Several things are driving this. As information becomes more pervasive, for instance, we are seeing more abuses of it, and attempts to monopolise it. Moreover, these monopoly threats are more and more pernicious, and their results so evident, that people are putting a lot of effort into trying to fight them. In addition, people perceive IP expertise to be a lucrative new business opportunity, so a cottage industry of IP specialists is developing, and this is encouraging further abuses, and new threats of monopolisation. While the various free and open movements have a lot in common, however, we also need to stress their differences. Open Access, for instance, is not the same as Open Source, or indeed Biological Open Source.

RP: What differences are you thinking about?

RJ: Open Source is about the capability to use something, and so the focus is not just on getting it out there but getting it out there complete with every bit of enablement necessary for anyone to use it, including the legal permissions.

RP: You mean that Open Source implies making available not just the end product (the software), but also the ability to adapt that end product (i.e. the code)? The focus of Open Access, by contrast, is exclusively on making scientific research freely available, not on providing the tools or expertise to exploit that research.

RJ: Precisely. Again, it is the capability to use this stuff, Richard, that is the critical feature. So it is not just about getting it out there. After all, that has always been the ethos of scientific publication, and that is all that science publication does. Publication doesn't get the whole know-how package out there; it doesn't get the permissions package out there; and it is not designed to address the infrastructure — the physical constraints — issues. To be truly Open Source you need these other things too.

RP: And presumably you would see Biological Open Source having more in common with Open Source than Open Access? When you distributed GUS, for instance, you didn’t just release the basic information, but you also made available a detailed handbook explaining how to use it, plus thousands of tubes of DNA sequences?

RJ: That's right. It might help to see the difference if you think about the term A2K, or Access to Knowledge. We are not about A2K, but C2UK, or Capability to Use Knowledge. That is also what BiOS is about, and it is what Open Source is about.

RP: Knowledge is not enough in itself.

RJ: Precisely. There is a huge misunderstanding amongst pundits about this, and also among some of the practitioners too. If you want to talk about Open Access, in which you share all the data, that is fine. Indeed, I'm all for Open Access. But it is the capability to use knowledge that's key. And that capability must encompass the ability to deliver innovation, complete with freedom to operate and other permissions, along with the investments necessary to make a change in something other than a career. So the Open Access Movement is only half way there.

Comment.  I hate to quarrel with someone whose work I admire without reservation, but Jefferson has a truncated view of open access.  In its fullest sense, for example, as articulated in the BOAI, OA provides both free online access to research articles and permission to use and reuse them.  That is, it removes both price and permission barriers.  Nor does anyone claim that this is everything or that, after achieving it, nothing remains to be added.  Where using knowledge requires tools, OA doesn't itself provide the tools or pretend to.  It's one key part in an ecology of mutually supportive initiatives, much needed and very useful on its own but even more useful in conjunction with complementary innovations.