“Information wants to be free,” declares Stewart Brand, one of the prophets of Infotopia, a concept advocating the Internet-based potential to pool information and to use that knowledge to improve our lives. He walked the talk, too, by publishing the Whole Earth Catalog. But the real question is: “Do people want information to be free?”
According to a recent Scientific American article, numerous graduate students in various fields of science are participating in a wiki project called “OpenWetWare” and in several science sharing blogs. Some students report that this has helped them advance their understanding of difficult points in their fields of specialty.
However, while giving graduate students an easy way to share insights and experiences, there are some negative views about accessing their research on the Internet. First, the research is not a product of real science -- that is, carefully thought through papers that are closely scrutinized by peer review prior to publishing.
Also, graduate students hesitate to say anything critical of work done by the professionals, lest it come back to haunt them when they are applying for grants or jobs. In addition, there is a fear that a trusting researcher might publish the questions he or she has developed after years of effort, only to have some reader take the creative leap to a solution and capture all the credit, not to mention profit.
Speaking of profit -- that is the main reason scientific journals are not rushing to participate in what Infotopians call “the gift economy.” According to the science journalist, Spencer Reiss, roughly 95 percent of peer reviewed research papers in the life sciences are still locked up by the big commercial publishers, such as Elsevier and Springer. For them, scientific publishing is a $10 billion global business, growing 10 percent a year. Reiss comments that these folks are unlikely to give up their golden egg-laying goose without a fight.
Fight indeed! In 2006 a bill entitled The Federal Research Public Access Act (FRPAA) was introduced in the Senate that, if passed, would encourage the publication of federally funded scientific research in open access (OA) journals, which are free to the public. To strengthen opposition to the bill, the Association of American Publishers (AAP), the chief lobbying organization for American publishing interests, hired former congresswoman Patricia Schroeder as its president. Apparently, she did her job well. The bill died in committee that year. An earlier bill in the House met the same fate.
After its victory in the Senate, AAP beefed up its lobbying team by hiring the infamous Washington insider, Eric Dezenhall. Business Week deems him “The Pit Bull of Public Relations.” His strategy is to keep OA proponents on the defensive with messages like: Public access equals Socialism; OA would dampen the profit motive for research; and it could result in government censorship by agencies being denied funds to possibly controversial research. He, too, seems to be doing his job well. According to pro-OA Taxpayeraccess.org, the FRPAA has not been reintroduced in Congress.
Publishers aren’t the only special interest opposing OA. Pharmaceutical and agribusiness companies take out patents on drugs and farm technology that were discovered by publicly funded university research, as well as research funded by federal agencies. Allowing a bill like FRPAA to pass would collapse their profit-making structure as OA on the Internet would become unstoppable.
So, maybe “information wants to be free,” as Stewart Brand says, but there are very powerful people who want to keep it corralled. In today’s economic and political reality, comparatively inconsequential research can run as free as it pleases, but where there is real money to be made, the rule of “charge what the market will bear” will continue its reign for the foreseeable future.
— William J. Kelleher, PhD, political analyst, author of Progressive Logic and The New Election Game