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The ethical case for free, open and effective access…

In the sciences, the general case for sharing of all scientific knowledge (and knowledge resources) has long been clearly articulated. Robert K. Merton, sociologist of science at Columbia made the case in 1942 — where he said: “The substantive findings of science are a product of social collaboration and are assigned to the community. They constitute a common heritage in which the equity of the individual producer is severely limited…”
[SEE: Robert K. Merton, “A Note on Science and Democracy,” Journal of Law and Political Sociology 1 (1942): 121.] at about the same time (1941) a “Declaration of Scientific Principles” appeared in Nature — “7. The pursuit of scientific inquiry demands complete intellectual freedom. And unrestricted international exchange of knowledge…“ [SEE:“The Commonwealth of Science, ” Nature No.3753 October 4, 1941] These scientific values have been affirmed and re-affirmed many times. In fact, the predecessor to UNESCO was the League of Nations Committee on International Intellectual Cooperation… [SEE related: “The union of International Associations” and “The Mundaneum” http://www.uia.be/node/85 ]

The principle that access to knowledge is an essential human right (and fundamental to effective citizenship) has also been widely affirmed. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 19 declares: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” [SEE: http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/index.shtml ]

In fact, the authors of the US Constitution realized that access to knowledge was essential to the public welfare — the notion of limited monopoly on “intellectual property” — as defined in the provisions for patent and copyright make this clear and by the recognition of the public domain. (Thomas Jefferson, corresponding with his Secretary of War in 1807, wrote: “The field of knowledge is the common property of all mankind.”)

In 1954, when Edward R. Murrow asked him about patenting the polio vaccine, Jonas Salk famously commented” “That would be like patenting the sun…” 35 years later Nobel Laureate Joshua Lederberg was warning of the deterioration of the ethic of sharing [SEE: “Data Sharing: A Declining Ethic? — Commercial pressures and heightened competition are testing the notion that scientific data and materials should be widely shared.” Science v. 248 p952- 957, 25 May 1990]. It seems more than a little ironic that now — 50 years later — “20% of human gene DNA sequences are patented” [Science Magazine Policy Forum: K.Jensen and F. Murray, “Intellectual Property: Landscape of the Human Genome,” Science 14 October 2005: Vol. 310. no. 5746, pp. 239 – 240].

Thus sadly, despite clear and longstanding articulation of the principles of free and open access to knowledge, there has been a strong countervailing trend toward restriction of knowledge [“commoditization” — SEE: J. Birkinshaw and T. Sheehan, “Managing the Knowledge Life Cycle,” MIT Sloan Management Review, 44 (2) Fall, 2002:77].

So, assuming (as in my previous post) that librarians are both stewards and advocates — how do we make our case…? 1) We marshal all available historical and philosophical evidence for support of open access [in effect, I’ve cited just a few of the diverse sources for such a case…] 2) we organize and broadly disseminate by publishing, presenting, discussing, teaching 3) we insist upon evidence-based public policy with full transparency — not only of data but of the logic that directs the definition of data as evidence 4) we insist upon transparent processes by which data can be transparently and effectively scrutinized — this means specifying all forms of transformation to which data are subject and presenting the “chain of custody” / provenance of data thus certifying both logical validity and technical integrity 5) from a policy perspective, we begin with the “lowest hanging fruit”, which politically means we start with bio-medicine (humans are naturally enough — anthropocentric) — thus NIH, CDC and UN/WHO and their evolving policies — but we also push in other domains like conservation, agriculture and agrarian science, education… 6) we analyze carefully and advocate for the broad implementation of “qualified peer review mechanisms” (NSF provides an excellent model) 7) we aggressively advocate for K-gray science literacy…

More about all and each of these points will follow…

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