Out in the open: Some scientists sharing results

Our society has become increasingly accustomed to concepts of sharing through the use of the internet.  Whether it is sharing photos on facebook or music on limewire we are in an age of rapid-fire sharing.  A group of scientists, many of whom are in the Boston area, have extended the sharing concept to the field of scientific discovery.  The open-science movement pushes for scientists to share techniques, raw data, and experimental results far before they are ready for publishing.  The movement seeks to increase dissemination of knowledge and to increase the rate at which discoveries are made.

We live in a world where millions of people are HIV positive, a world where malaria runs rampant in thousands of villages across Africa, and a world where tuberculosis is a ruthless killer. Therefore shouldn’t any process that may aid in bringing about cures to these diseases be applauded?  The proponents of scientific openness would argue that by publishing incremental experimental results and research at every step of the way the entire scientific community (and the general public) would have access to these and would  be able to work together to bring about cures more rapidly.  However, scientists who are opposed to the openness concept fear that by sharing their results on the internet, before they have been formally published in a journal, they may be giving competing labs a “leg up” or they may be losing their ability to profit from their discovery.

In order to reconcile these two groups it may be necessary to look beyond the traditional solution of intellectual property protection. Although it is likely that scientific postings online would fall under the subject matter of literary work and would gain protection under s.3 of the Copyright Act this protection would not solve the concerns of some scientists that they be fairly rewarded for their contribution.  Since infringement, as defined by s.27 of the Copyright Act, protects the expression of ideas and not the ideas themselves a first researcher who publishers preliminary results would not be able to claim copyright infringement against a second who uses the preliminary results to bring about a discovery.  As well, since the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision in CCH, the court seems to be emphasizing users’ rights through the exception of fair dealing.  Therefore, the second creator could easily use the defence of fair dealing through research or even through development, since the SCC enunciated that the enumerated grounds were not closed in CCH.

Therefore, in order to reward scientists for their contributions through an open-sharing process the framework of how scientists are recognized must be changed.  Instead of only rewarding a final discovery, or instead of only recognizing a final journal entry, perhaps scientists should be rewarded and recognized at every step of the way.  This would promote the openness concept and it would help to further the goal of dissemination of knowledge.  It might also bring about a greater sense of partnership in working towards cures for deadly diseases.