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What is Science Commons? By John Wilbanks, Science Commons Executive Director


[This is part of a weekly series written by Lawrence Lessig and
others about the history and future of Creative Commons. If you know others who might find these interesting,
please recommend they sign up at]

Last week, I said this week’s email would describe the Science
Commons. Let me introduce John Wilbanks, executive director of the
Science Commons. Here’s his description:

Science Commons (SC) was launched in early 2005. SC is a part of
Creative Commons – think of us as a wholly owned subsidiary – drawing
on the amazing success of CC licenses, especially the CC community
and iCommons. But we’re also a little different. Whereas CC focuses
on the individual creators and their copyrights, SC by necessity has
a broader focus. That necessity is caused by, for example, the fact
that most scientists sign employee agreements that assign
intellectual property rights to a host institution. Another example
is that scientific journals regularly request that scientific authors
sign over their copyrights, and scientists eagerly do so in return
for citations in what are called “high impact” journals. There’s a
very real collective action problem here: no one individual or
institution has strong incentives to change the system.

But the system is causing problems in the scientific and academic
communities. Scientific articles are locked behind firewalls, long
after their publishers have realized economic returns. This means
that the hot new article about AIDS research can’t be redistributed
much less translated into other languages (where it might inspire a
local researcher to solve a local problem). The difficulties faced
in relation to the “open access” of publications are easy compared
to those presented when we consider access to tools and data.
Published research indicates that nearly half of all geneticists have
been unable to validate research from colleagues due to problems with
secrecy and legal friction.

So Science Commons works on these problems: inaccessible journal
articles, tools locked up behind complex contracts, socially
irresponsible patent licensing, and data obscured by technology or
end-user licensing agreements. We translate this into projects, with
work in three distinctly different project spaces: publishing
(covered by copyright), licensing (covered by patent and contract)
and data (in the US, covered only by contract). We work on agreements
between funders and grant recipients, between universities and
researchers and between funders and universities—all in the service
of opening up scientific knowledge, tools and data for reuse. We
also promote the use of CC licensing in scientific publishing, on the
belief that scientific papers need to be available to everyone in the
world, not simply available to those with enough resources to afford
subscription fees.

The Publishing Project

Scholarly communication in the sciences generally involves three
components: data generated by experimental research, a peer-reviewed
article explaining and interpreting the data, and metadata that
describes or interprets the underlying data or the article.
Traditionally, journal publishers were predominantly responsible for
gathering, distributing and archiving this information.

The Internet and associated digital networks create a range of
opportunities and challenges for changing the nature of what
information gets stored and communicated, how and when it gets
communicated, and how it is marked with metadata to aid in its use
and reuse. Science Commons is devoted to using its legal and
technical expertise to help scientific researchers make the best use
possible of these new communication technologies. For example, some
science publishers experimenting with a new business model for
scholarly communication require authors of peer-reviewed articles to
grant a Creative Commons license in their articles. These publishers
include the Public Library of Science, BioMed Central, and Springer

Science Commons also has convened a working group to discuss other
means for better associating research articles with research data and
for standardizing metadata associated with both of these components.

The Licensing Project

In licensing, we work in a focused manner on the funding of disease
research. Such work involves a lot of basic science carried out by
many individuals at a diverse range of institutions, both public and
private, and each with different policies about intellectual property
rights, different licensing agreements, and, to some extent, even
different funders. When the research begins to yield the kinds of
leads that might attract drug company attention, it will be desirable
(both in remuneration, and also in encouragement to pharmaceutical
companies interest and participation) to offer drug companies an
efficient package of rights that covers the basic permissions they
need to turn research into viable drugs and treatment regimens. The
current practice will certainly not allow the benefits of such “one
stop shopping.”

Using Huntington’s Disease research as a case study, Science Commons
is exploring a “technology trust,” which will combine an intellectual
property rights conservancy, patent pool and other related rights-
bundling methods. We are assessing the types of problems of rights-
fragmentation, a range of possible legal solutions to this problem
(including compulsory terms in funder agreements), the institutional
design of the trust or conservancy, and the question of what
institution would be best suited to administer such a trust or
conservancy. While the project aims to produce a method to ameliorate
the problem for Huntington’s, we would hope to provide guidelines for
solving such problems more generally.

The Data Project

In the United States, there is no intellectual property right on data
(there is such a right in the European Union, albeit with mounting
evidence that it was not needed). But current expansions in
intellectual property law could generate an entirely new set of
obstacles to sharing data among scientists or with the public.
Extending intellectual property rights to databases are likely to
result in basic data being locked up, made more expensive, or more
easily subjected to restrictive licensing agreements.

Additionally, there is a wasteful data economy evolving in which raw
data is not made accessible; scientists are either leery of the risks
of losing control over their data or subject to institutional
requirements that mandate a closed approach. Implicit in data sets
are answers to questions the researcher perhaps did not specify –
answers that are a consequence of the throughput of the experiment.
This data could be reused many times over if properly annotated and
preserved. This, however, requires a cultural shift among scientists,
not a technical shift driven by lawyers.

The Science Commons Data project has two aspects. First, we assert
that data should not be covered by intellectual property law. As part
of this project we provide a resource for database providers
struggling with licensing. Second, we are looking to improve on the
data economy by aiding in the construction of an integrated web of
data, papers, tools, and policy with the explicit goal of
facilitating research into brain disease – the NeuroCommons.

John Wilbanks

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– Thanks to Maria Cristinia Alvite for translation

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Posted 09 November 2005