Students studying in the Wills Law Library.

The complex situation of information sharing and open access research

As we have just seen, technology and the sharing of technology can be a difficult and often controversial subject.

Whether or not you see the development of the atomic bomb to be a positive or negative outcome of technology sharing entirely depends on your perspective. There are many examples of such outcomes of technology sharing, which could lead us into very complex moral and ethical debates. However, the main debates on the sharing of technology revolve around a crucial tension. On the one hand, there is a need for competition and for an economic incentive to develop new ideas and technology. On the other hand, there is a need to collaborate and share knowledge on a global scale.

The first step in the development of any new technology is basic research, which is often carried out in a university or a publicly funded research institute. However, research in itself is an interesting example of the decisions that are made when new ideas are shared. Academic research is often published in what are called ‘peer-reviewed’ journals. A journal will send the draft of a research paper to other experts in the field before publishing it. These experts can say whether they feel the research methods were robust and whether the conclusions of the research are supported by the data. This process is designed to ensure that there is consistency in the quality of academic research being published.

But to read the papers once they are published in these journals, you usually have to pay a subscription, meaning that individuals rarely have access to them. Even institutions like universities have to choose which journals they pay to have access to. This ultimately means that new information is restricted to those who can afford it. Most journal publishers are based in wealthy countries in Europe and North America, and can charge thousands of pounds a year for a subscription to a single journal. This also means that researchers in poorer countries tend to be disadvantaged. The consequence is that when people don’t have access to the latest information, they can’t build on existing knowledge. So, they may waste time exploring avenues that have been discounted or disproved by others, or might not have a crucial missing piece of information which could help them develop an idea.

This is a well-known problem, and so the UK Research Councils now say that all publicly-funded research, including research from universities, should be ‘open access’ (Research Councils UK, no date). This means that anyone who wants to get information about a publicly-funded project should be able to do so, for free. ‘Open access’ has other benefits, as if more people have access to the raw data and the conclusions in research papers then it is more likely that any mistakes or misinterpretations of the data will be seen and corrected more quickly. This means that in the end the progress of ideas and innovations will be faster. This is especially important when we’re thinking about research with highly controversial results. It also makes it easier to share information throughout the world, enabling more people to learn from, and perhaps apply, knowledge gained from global research to solve specific problems in their own local environment.

So, should we make all research open access? Open access sharing of information will certainly give people the tools to be able to build on knowledge generated around the globe, and put this to new uses. However, there are some fields of research which routinely protect their findings with patents, or control access to information which could be commercially sensitive. They do this because their fields rely on investment for research, and need to give their investors a return on their money. They might also feed into new ideas in industry, which would give companies an advantage. Finally, there are some fields where information could be very dangerous if used for certain purposes, such as to develop weapons.

So, we are faced with something of a dilemma. It’s clear that we still have a long way to go to solve complex global issues such as climate change, provision of sustainable energies, and universal availability of clean water and healthcare. Discovering new technologies and continuing the development of existing technologies often relies on many different people from different fields working collaboratively. Diversity and equal opportunities are also very important in research. A lot of basic research involves innovation and problem solving. So, someone with a different set of skills experiences may come up with new, creative solutions to a problem, if they have access to the information.

Yet, research also depends on the investment of companies, and scientific and medical research is often extremely expensive. Without providing the opportunity for companies to recoup their losses, and make a profit, research often fails to develop quickly. We see this with the different levels of investment in drugs for different diseases. Some drugs are developed much more rapidly than others, simply because they have had a greater investment of time and money.

We are then left with many decision to make:

  • Who should be given access to new ideas?

  • How far should they be controlled, and who gets to decide how they are controlled?

  • Is it right for companies to profit from new ideas, or should they always be shared for the greater good?

Research Councils UK. (no date), Open Access, published online

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This article is from the free online course:

Unleash Your Potential: Global Citizenship

University of Bristol