Misunderestimating Open Science

James Boyle, Misunderestimating Open Science, Financial Times, Feb. 24, 2009


It is hard for politicians to do anything that would shock me but I have to say that John Conyers, a US Congressman, has done it. In the process, he has taught us a lot about how far we have to go, all over the world, before we get our science policy right. Since science and technology are major engines of growth, that is a point of pressing interest for governments everywhere.

Rep. Conyers has introduced a bill, misleadingly called the ”Fair Copyright in Research Works Act,” that would eviscerate public access to taxpayer funded research. The bill is so badly drafted that it would also wreak havoc on federal information policy more generally. It is supported by the commercial science publishers, but opposed by a remarkable set of groups — ranging from the American Research Libraries, to 33 Nobel Prize Winners, to a coalition of patients’ rights organizations. (One of its many negative effects would be effectively to forbid the the US National Institutes of Health from allowing the taxpayers who have paid for medical research actually to read the results for free, hurting not only the progress of science, but informed medical decisions by patients and their families.)

As a copyright professor, I have to say the bill is a nightmare. For reasons I won’t bore you with, its limitations on Federal agencies are completely unworkable. And as a scholar who writes about innovation, I have to say that it flies in the face of decades of research which shows the extraordinary multiplier effect of free access to information on the speed of scientific development. But speaking as a human being, I just have to wonder what could be going through a politician’s head at a moment like this.