In promoting scientific research and discovery, access to information is everything. Scientists look to journals and the work of their peers to identify new, innovative laboratory methods or trends in scientific discovery. However, maintaining intellectual property rights in one’s work is often needed to support the living expenses of scientists. So, when Dr. Guy Rouleau announced that the Montreal Neurological Institute (MNI) would make the shift to an entirely open data institute it raised some eyebrows among the scientific and legal community.
What is Open Science?
Scientific journals have been a convenient medium for accessing compilations of scientific findings for over 100 years. Normally, a scientific journal focusses on a defined range of scientific topics and offers access through paid subscriptions or the purchase of individual articles. The tradition of paywalls can prevent fellow scientists or aspiring academics from accessing, understanding, and potentially integrating relevant scientific findings into one’s own work.
In contrast, open science is a growing trend which makes research findings available to the public free of charge. The Copyleft movement goes one-step farther by also binding subsequent users by the same conditions of free distribution to support a broader network of free-flowing information. In a field where data is of the utmost important in developing scientific procedures and experimentation, the movement towards an open dissemination of findings seems like the only way to organize research. However, free distribution may overwhelm prospective readers through the sheer volume of scientific literature that is produced or cause readers to misconstrue scientific findings without summaries by relevant authorities, which would often accompany traditional paid journal entries. Furthermore, the complicated and highly competitive nature of scientific research often obliges scientists to keep their findings to their research groups or parent institutions for fear of competitors reaping the benefits of many years of testing hypotheses. So, when a tired and weary research group finally has a “eureka” moment, what would motivate them to share a potential cash cow with the world at large?
MNI’s Reasoning Behind the Backing of Open Science
Dr. Guy Rouleau, the director of the MNI, explains that the benefits of the MNI opening the doors to its neurological findings greatly outweigh the costs. The nervous system, consisting of the brain, spinal cord, and peripheral nerves, is one of the most, if not the most, complex part of the human body. Accordingly, understanding its functionality and developing treatments for diseases affecting such a delicate and perplexing biological system is incredibly challenging. This has led to a relatively low output of effective treatments for diseases of the brain and nervous system despite increasing public pressure to identify the etiology of neurological and psychiatric diseases.
By becoming the first world-class institution to fully promote open science, MNI hopes that its researchers’ preliminary findings will receive increased exposure and be used in drug-development projects across various institutions. Having more eyes on the MNI’s data, findings, and experimental methods and waiving some preliminary intellectual property rights will likely allow neurological innovations to move more quickly from inception to the patent stage. This would be in contrast to the more traditional course of scientific development, where scientists regularly encounter barriers to accessing data or experimental findings of similar institutions that would speed up the progress of their own research.
The Risks to MNI’s Approach
Of course, the drawbacks to offering open access include risking a possible loss of grants and patentable products for those who invest time and energy into critical preliminary stages of scientific development. In the public context, this may mean scientists are not recognized for their findings and the likelihood of receiving grants to support further innovative research is reduced. In the private context, research groups may have their findings taken advantage of by companies who develop a patentable product and introduce it into the market at a high cost to consumers.
Since scientific development also occurs in small, incremental steps, the findings of one research group may not initially seem substantial, but can turn out to be important in the eventual development of a patentable drug which revolutionizes neurological therapeutics. A research group may lose sources of revenue if they decide to waive traditional intellectual property rights to their findings and only later realize their work was a crucial step in developing many marketable technologies. Furthermore, despite the esteemed nature of scientific professions, acquiring funding can be incredibly difficult since the patentability and marketability of future products will often not be evident in an exploratory project. However, such exploratory projects still are a fundamental link in the chain from theoretical conception to industrially applicable therapeutics.
How does MNI Overcome these Concerns?
While patents can generate significant income for researchers, Dr. Rouleau explains that there are ethical obligations to promote scientific discovery. There is always some risk that, in publicly disseminating research data, the Holy Grail of science will be made available without any intellectual property rights afforded to its original finders. This can lead to competition among industrial leaders who may seek to ensure any marketable products that draw upon open science findings are patentable and protectable at law. However, sequestering such an important finding to one institution may belie the objectives of scientific institutions such as MNI. In conducting laboratory experimentation or clinical trials, neurologists and other scientists working on medical therapeutics are ultimately trying to solve contemporary health problems and allow those afflicted with debilitating diseases to live with dignity and freedom from everyday discomfort and pain.
Looking Forward as a Community
What makes the movement of the MNI interesting, is that the institution’s focus on early-state neurological research allows for a smoother transition from closed to open science. This is where Copyleft practices can help promote a more effective form of scientific development. By acting as a leader in open access and open intellectual property distribution, MNI’s historic move may inspire other institutions to openly share their results as well.
It’s unclear what the effect of MNI’s support of open science will be, but one hopes that it will lead to a more collaborative scientific community driven by an increasing sense of joint innovation and sustainable research funding. Integrating a more careful examination of whether one’s scientific discoveries are worth patenting and whether a patent would generate substantial returns throughout the scientific research process may promote more cautionary patenting and a greater understanding of what legal rights are necessary for sustainable research in an interdependent field. Furthermore, the development of open science can allow smaller research institutions to contribute in a more meaningful way to broader scientific discourse by not necessarily creating new research findings, but interpreting results and offering new perspectives.
Similarly, open science can inspire youth who are considering a career in science to engage with the state of the art and witness scientific discovery as it develops in the literature and market. However, the interests of third parties who have existing intellectual property rights would need to be balanced with those of academic institutions who want to make the patented techniques or methods available to the public, free of charge. This may lead to insurmountable hurdles to open access, but with good reason. The revenue generated by some patents may be necessary to a third-party’s business model and funding further scientific experimentation. Consequently, in moving forward as an interdisciplinary community, constructive negotiation and foresight to the marketability of scientific discoveries will be paramount in ensuring adequate access to information is maintained without infringing on the sustainability of institutions or third-parties.
Dominic Cerilli is an IPilogue Editor and a JD Candidate at Osgoode Hall Law School.