ScienceOnline and copyright anxiety

I attended parts of the ScienceOnline 2010 conference, held here in the Research Triangle this weekend.  There was a fascinating array of topics discussed and an interesting crowd of 270+ that included many working scientists, librarians and even journalists.  It was a great opportunity to listen to scientists talk about how they want to communicate with one another and with the general public.

There are some excellent discussions of what went on at this year’s conference, especially here and here on Dorothea Salo’s blog.  Those with a real passion for more information can check out this growing list of blog posts about the conference.  I won’t try to compete with these comprehensive recaps, especially because my selection of events to attend was rather idiosyncratic, and perhaps even ill-advised.  But I do want to make three quick observations about what I personally learned from the conference.

First, I discovered one more argument for open science that had not occurred to me before, but has the potential to be very compelling for scientists on our faculties.  One reason academic research should be online is that “junk” science is already there.  If the general public — including the proportion thereof who vote or require health care — do not make good decisions in regard to matters involving scientific knowledge, we can only blame ourselves when the best research is not available to them, hidden behind pay walls.

Second, I was fascinated to discover that health science bloggers have developed a code of ethics to try and account for the many issues that arise when scientists put important and potentially life-altering information onto the open web.  The benefits of this openness are indisputable, but so are some of the risks.  This code of ethics represents an attempt to address some of those risks and minimize them (there is a somewhat different discussion of a similar issue from the conference here).  The criteria applied to evaluate health care blogs (see the text of the code itself) — clear representation of perspective, confidentiality, commercial disclosure, reliability of information and courtesy — encapsulate standards that all of us who try to share information and opinion online need to be aware of.

Third, I was amazed at how important, and problematic, copyright issues were to this group.  I attended seven sessions at the conference, and five of them dealt with copyright as a major (although often unannounced) topic of discussion.  Even recognizing my tendency to gravitate toward such sessions, this is a high percentage.  I asked a fellow attendee why so many sessions raised copyright and was told, albeit with tongue in cheek, that it is “ruining our lives.”  More seriously, one scientist described trying to put his classroom lecture slides online and being told by his university’s counsel that all material that he did not create had to be removed first.  Apparently there was no discussion of the applicability of fair use and how to decide what was and was not allowable; just a wholesale rule that would discourage most scientists interested in sharing.  This suggested to me that it really is very important to improve the quality of copyright education on campus — for faculty, librarians (who are often the ones asked for advice) and even legal counsel.  We cannot reasonably advocate more online open access unless we also give our scholars the resources to accomplish that goal.  In many ways the technological infrastructure is becoming trivial and it is the policy and legal questions that must be addressed directly if we really want encourage openness.

One thought on “ScienceOnline and copyright anxiety”

  1. Kevin,

    I enjoy reading your posts. I think you make an astute point regarding copyright education on campuses. As a librarian, I periodically get copyright-related questions from faculty regarding what they can and can’t post online. Many, if not all, want to put materials online and share them but they want to do so in the easiest and quickest way possible. Sometimes it’s the technology that impedes them but most often it’s the legal issues. Unfortunately, when they hit these barriers some throw up their hands in frustration and move on. So not only do we need improved IP educatoin, we need to make things easier for them particularly when addressing the legal/policy issues. If we don’t, the quest for more openess will continue to be challenging.

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