Saturday, February 28, 2009

James Boyle on keeping public science open to the public

James Boyle on keeping public science open to the public: The Financial Times yesterday ran a terrific op-ed by James Boyle, explaining the ridiculousness of the Conyers bill “that would eviscerate public access to taxpayer funded research.” (Via Joho the Blog.)

With a bit of (likely unintended) irony, that worthy op-ed is behind a (free) sign-up firewall. The hypothetical dialog between member of Congress and staffer is too tame, the reality is likely to be much more crude (access, campaign donations). Still, it goes beyond the typical pro-open access statement in explaining how open access can enable much more powerful linking among scientific results:

Even if this bill dies the death it so richly deserves, the very fact we are arguing about it indicates how far we have to go in our debates over science policy. Think about the Internet. You know it is full of idiocy, mistake, vituperation and lies. Yet search engines routinely extract useful information for you out of this chaos. How do they do it? In part, by relying on the network of links that users generate. If 50 copyright professors link to a particular copyright site, then it is probably pretty reliable.

Where are those links for the scientific literature? Citations are one kind of link; the hyperlink is simply a footnote that actually takes you to the desired reference. But where is the dense web of links generated by working scientists in many disciplines, using semantic web technology and simple cross reference electronically to tie together literature, datasets and experimental results into a real World Wide Web for science? The answer is, we cannot create such a web until scientific articles come out from behind the publishers’ firewalls. What might happen if we could build it? We do not know. Think of the speed of innovation that the open Web has unleashed. Then imagine that transformative efficiency applied to science and technology rather than selling books or flirting on social networks. This bill would forbid us from building the World Wide Web for science, even for the research that taxpayers have funded. And that is truly a tragedy.

I'd not bet as much on semantic web technology, but otherwise this is just right.

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