Open Access News

News from the open access movement

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Richard Poynder interviews John Wilbanks

Richard Poynder, The Open Access Interviews: John Wilbanks, Open and Shut?  February 22, 2008.  Excerpt:

...As the Open Access debate has developed, however, it has become increasingly clear that maximising eyeballs [which can read research literature] is just the first step. Open Data advocates like Peter Murray-Rust, for instance, argue that research papers also need to be accessible to machines — an argument he put to me recently with some passion....

John Wilbanks, VP of Science Commons, has an even broader view of the role the Internet has to play in science. Like Murray-Rust, Wilbanks believes it is essential for research papers to be machine-readable. Likewise, he believes we need to develop an appropriate legal infrastructure to facilitate this. He also believes it is essential that science databases are freely available, and that these databases are interoperable — not just with one another, but with research literature.

In addition, Wilbanks believes the Internet should be viewed as a platform for facilitating the free circulation and sharing of the physical tools of science — cell lines, antibodies, plasmids etc. In a sense, he wants to see these tools embedded into research papers — so if a reader of an Open Access paper wants more detailed information on, say, a cell line, they should be able to click on a link and pull up information from a remote database. Should the researcher then want to obtain that cell line from a biobank, they should be able to order it in the same way as they might order an item on Amazon or eBay, utilising a 1-click system available directly from the article.

To make this possible, points out Wilbanks, we need to build the necessary technical infrastructure. This, he says, will require creating new ways of automating the collection, aggregation and discovery of scientific information, as well as the construction of an effective ecommerce system for the physical materials of science. And the best hope for achieving that, he adds, is by helping to create the so-called Semantic Web.

The end game, explains Wilbanks, is to make the research process as seamless and frictionless as possible. This implies that the scholarly paper is no longer simply an article to be viewed by as many eyeballs as possible, but also the raw material for multiple machines and software agents to data mine, a front-end to hundreds of databases, and the launch pad for an ecommerce system designed to speed up the process of research.

In this light, Open Access is not an end in itself, but the necessary precondition for a complete revolution in the way that science is done....

[According to Wilbanks], we are approaching the point where we will not be able to develop new life-saving drugs, or devise solutions to complex problems like global warming, without the kind of dramatic change in the way we do science that Science Commons envisages; for science is now so complicated that we will soon be unable to crunch the data quickly enough, or effectively enough, unless we embrace the kind of machine-driven, network-centric approach envisaged by the Semantic Web. As Wilbanks bluntly puts it, "The fact is that the complexity involved in studying a living system is such that even Pfizer — with $4 billion a year in R&D — can't handle it." ...