Out in the open: Some scientists sharing results

It is said that a problem shared is a problem halved. Is it possible that innovation shared could mean innovation doubled?  If one looks to economic theory to justify IP, the underlying purpose of IP appears to be the promotion of advancements in science and useful arts- by protecting the creator’s rights the law provides incentive to create new works.  


When Barry Canton, a biological engineer at MIT, posted his raw material, thesis proposal and original research ideas online, he turned this theory on its head.

In an industry where patenting is relied on to secure fame and fortune, with no incentive to share unprotected information openly, it  was a bold move to forego the rights offered by intellectual property protection in order to encourage more efficient work. This is part of the, ‘open science,’ movement, led from Boston, which encourages the sharing of research before it’s ready to be presented.


This leads us to question whether the IP model currently in existence is, in practice, having the unintended effect of inhibiting innovation, with the time consuming processes of review necessary before patenting and publication.


The ‘anti-open sharing,’ side argue that discoveries have always occurred at a steady pace and that circulation of un-reviewed  information may be misleading, meaning time is wasted and research is hindered. If research is so easy to access by others it could give competitors an advantage or could see researchers scooped up by other labs. Could an open system realistically work when you factor in natural human competitiveness?


On the other side, from a public policy perspective, it is in the public’s best interest for information to be openly shared, particularly in relation medical research. Scientists could bounce ideas off one another leading to faster discoveries.


As it stands, under s. 32 of the Patent Act when an improvement is made to patented inventions, the creator of the improvement doesn’t necessarily have the right to produce the improved product, nor does the original patent holder. If scientists choose to share their work this problem can be overcome, so a 20 year monopoly doesn’t stand in the way of improved drugs, testing methods etc being freely used. Another point to note is the freedom of information issue, now even when discoveries are available in journals, there is usually a charge to access these, is that fair?


For this movement to succeed there needs to be an overhaul of the current model. As stakeholders in the music and publishing industry have done before, a new business model needs to be formulated to support such a change in the industry. The sharing of information would have to be accepted practice amongst labs so a give/take balance could exist where partakers mutually benefit.


If such a model could be created then it most certainly is the way to go, and the benefits of information sharing would far outweigh the disadvantages.  With the exchange of ideas, methods, techniques and research would come a synergy, with results far greater than the sum of the parts.