Open Access News

News from the open access movement

Friday, July 20, 2007

Interview with John Wilbanks

Abby Seiff, Will John Wilbanks Launch the Next Scientific Revolution?  Popular Science, July 2007.  Excerpt:

…As scientific goals grow more multifaceted, the challenges for research and development lie not only in the experiments themselves, but also in the transfer of information among peers.

Enter John Wilbanks, executive director of the Science Commons initiative, and the six-year-old innovation of its parent organization, Creative Commons —an intelligent, understandable copyright that's revolutionizing how everything from photos to publications are shared. Wilbanks and his team (which includes Nobel Prize winners Joshua Lederberg and John Sulston) are focused on three areas where roadblocks to scientific discovery are most common: in accessing literature, obtaining materials, and sharing data….

How will an open-access system improve scientific research?

The question is, have we now hit a point where scientific problems are so complex that one person alone can't solve them? It would certainly seem that way. The problems science is pursuing today —issues like global warming and genomic mapping— demand a distributed approach across disciplines. But currently, journal articles, data, research, materials and so on are stopped by contracts and copyrights at such a rate that it's become nearly impossible to pull them together. The estimated utility half-life of a scientific paper is 15 years, but the copyright lasts until 70 years after the author's death. It's hard to get data sets shared, and the basic elements of the commercial Web (like eBay, Amazon and Google) function poorly, if at all, inside the sciences. The knowledge simply isn't moving as easily as it should, and transactions are slow on a good day, non-existent on a bad one….

In the past, you've noted that improving data-sharing among scientists may take more of a cultural shift than a legal one. What do you think it will take to achieve this? 

Right now, it's still in scientists' interest to follow the classical model of one scientist working alone. In today's system, you don't get rewarded for sharing—no one gets tenure for choosing to publish preprints of their papers in molecular biology, or for spending weeks making cells for other labs to do research. And you sometimes get ahead by deliberately withholding. If you think you can squeeze more papers out of your data, you might not share it even if it takes years for someone else to replicate the research you've written about. Even if it's not a matter of deliberately withholding, it takes a great deal of effort to share information with others once you're through with it. It takes common standards to annotate data and databases to hold the data. It takes infrastructure to make sharing work. There's no easy system in place.

How do you change things so that it's in scientists' best interest to share rather than withhold?

We can provide the wiring, but only people within the system can make the incentives. That's why we've worked with funders from the beginning: They are the ones who can make an incentive for scientists to share, and they are also the ones for whom sharing is in their best interest….The Gates Foundation, for example, is now offering millions for malaria research, and it's contingent on the researchers making it available to share. Sharing maximizes the return on investment in early-stage research. No pharmaceutical company is making money by selling biological knowledge —they make money by selling chemicals. So getting as much of that knowledge as possible into the efficiency of the Web-commerce world is going to make it faster to find those chemicals.

What about the journals? How can an open-access system be in their interest?

Admittedly, right now the traditional for-profit publishing companies don't have a strong incentive to change. These publishers are making as much as a 35 percent profit, and in the absence of prodding from the scientific and research communities they're not going to change. But over the long term, people will get frustrated that we can easily find everything we need recreationally online but we can't do it for science. Imagine if Google couldn't read pages on the Web —it would be hard for PageRank to do its magic. Well, that's the situation in science. Google doesn't work as well for finding science as it does for finding pizza, and that's a shame. Open access isn't just about getting a scientist access to a file. It's the best thing for science because it allows all the smart people in the world to start hacking on the scientific literature and applying tools like text mining, collaborative filtering and more. Right now, all that content is basically dark to most of the smart people on Earth.

When that happens, journals will be forced to create a new business model to pay for peer review and layout….Nature is at the forefront of this, implementing CC licenses for its revolutionary preprint archive, Nature Proceedings, but there are lots of possibilities out there—think of Amazon's market partners. If a scientist is reading a paper online and clicks through to purchase material, there's value there. It might be a business model; it might be enough to defray the cost of open access. I just want to create the infrastructure that makes movement and sharing easier. If we can build the wiring, everyone involved can experiment with the business models and we can let the markets work it out….