Monday, March 19, 2012

Is the purpose of scholarship private profits?

This post is a reply to a post David Prosser wrote on the GOAL list in response to my post on the RCUK consultation.

On 18-Mar-12, at 5:07 AM, David Prosser wrote:

Say I wanted to data mine 10,000 articles.  I'm at a university, but I am co-funded by a pharmaceutical company and there is a possibility that the research that I'm doing may result in a new drug discovery, which that company will want to take to market.  The 10,000 articles are all 'open access', but they are under CC-BY-NC-SA licenses.  What mechanism is there by which I can contact all 10,000 authors and gain permission for my research?


Many thanks for raising this question, David, which brings up a number of interesting points. There is one that I would like to highlight first off as a basic underlying assumption that from my perspective should be challenged. That is the assumption that the increasing corporate involvement in universities is desirable. I argue that it is not. Co-funding of university research by pharmaceutical companies is problematic. What I would recommend instead is reversal of the corporate and high income earner tax breaks brought in, in many countries, over the past few decades as part of the neoliberal ideology*. That way, the public will have enough resources so that universities can be funded by the public to conduct research in the public interest. This would likely need to happen at a global level - an appropriate role for international bodies, from my perspective - to avoid the current risk of capital flight (companies pick up and move to wherever tax rates, employment and environmental standards are lowest to achieve the highest profits) which is undermining western democracy as a whole.

To illustrate why I say that funding of university research by the corporate sector is problematic, here are just a few examples:

1.    Why would pharmaceutical companies want to fund research that might challenge the claims of their successful drugs?
2.    What incentive would a pharmaceutical company have to find a cheap or free alternative to their expensive drugs? For example, if a pharmaceutical company is making a lot of profit from selling drugs to combat colon cancer, why would it fund research on public campaigns to encourage preventive measures such as eating vegetables? In the U.K., my understanding is that recent cuts have hit the social sciences and humanities hard. This means universities need to rely more on funding sources such as pharmaceutical companies while at the same time there is less support for this kind of basic, public-oriented research.
3.    Should research on the environment be conducted by and for the public interest - or report to the companies responsible for pollution?

*  Note on neoliberal ideology: think Thatcherism / Reaganism, the idea that the invisible hand of the market will take care of everything, if only we give it free reign. The "invisible hand of the market" comes from  a superficial skim of Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations (superficial because proponents do not speak to Smith's simultaneous call for the strong hand of the state, or the basic underlying assumption of continuous growth, which many would argue is impossible given the real limits of our ecosphere). For more on neoliberalism, I recommend David Harvey's brief and highly readable "A brief history of neoliberalism". We've been giving this a try for four decades, and what are the results? The global financial crisis of 2008, the debt crisis in Greece (and other countries), the Citizens United decision in the U.S. giving corporate money a right to free speech - a significant blow to democracy. It is timely to question this basic assumption, not continue on our current  path.

This message is posted here rather than to the GOAL list because this discussion is not permitted on the GOAL list. Further discussion is welcome from my perspective through many venues, however please note that I am no longer subscribing to GOAL


  1. I think that if you want to data mine articles on the open web, and your results may be used for commercial purposes, that no one will know you did this unless you publish.

    Anyway, you realize that copyright only protects expressions of ideas, right? So, using the science in a copyrighted article and then doing more science off of that is not copyright infringement. The pharmaceutical company wants the facts, not the expression - so it wants something which is not restricted by any Creative Commons license.

    Trying to talk about a patent based industry (pharmaceuticals) but doing so in the context of a license for copyright permissions, does not make sense. The assumption that a copyright license affects patent rights is the underlying assumption which should be challenged.

  2. This is a really good point, Randtke, and another of the points that I was meaning to bring up in response to David Prosser's comments. Copyright is indeed about the expression of ideas, not ideas per se, which is covered under patent law. A researcher working for a pharmaceutical company can read 10 thousand articles that are under 100% publisher copyright ownership; if this reading results in the discovery of a new drug, the pharma company does not need to contact any of the authors of any of these articles, or the publishers, for permission to apply for a patent. Text mining is not different in kind; it is just an automated form of reading. If any of the authors of the 10 thousand articles had made the discovery leading to the new drug and wished to market it, they would have submitted a patent application themselves.

  3. Heather

    I am hugely relaxed about companies building on academic research, launching new products and making profits. In fact, that is one of the reasons why I (through my government) fund basic research. And then we tax the companies and use some of the funds raised to put back into academic research. I'm not sure that breaking that circle would be good for academia.

    And these comments come in response to the UK's RCUK OA policy. The UK Research Councils have been tasked with ensuring knowledge transfer and so the argument that we should somehow stop research from getting into the hands of research is not going to fly.

    But if, for some reason we decide that we don't want industry to build on academic research we should do it explicitly, not through a backdoor probation on using OA texts. You may see OA as a tool in the fight against neoliberalism. I don't. And I think it is massive strategic mistake to somehow associate OA with any perception of being anti-commerce.

    Finally, text and data mining requires reproduction (copying). Pharma companies believe that this is not allowed for commercial purposes under a CC-NC licenses and so they are not data-mining that content. You may think that's a good thing. I don't.


  4. hi David,

    Many thanks for your comments.

    I am fine with industry building on academic research; back in 2005, I was making the point that open access is good for business

    However, this is not, nor should it be, the primary point of academic research. If it becomes the main point, this will not serve anyone well - not the public, academia, or industry. It's a side-benefit.

    As Drahos and Braithwaite point out in their book Information Feudalism, some of the greatest benefits to industry in the U.S. in the past half-century have come from public funding of research (e.g. the internet). However, the industrial uses were secondary, not primary. One example is the internet - currently arguably the greatest knowledge transfer ever, originally this was developed as part of the U.S. military strategy of Mutually Assured Destruction during the cold war. It is basic research that drives innovation, much moreso than applied research. More later.

  5. I share your concern about the incursion of big business into research, but the problems with NC licenses are far broader than big pharma. "Commercial" use can be interpreted to include private universities, schools, tutors, and researchers, non-profit companies, and even charities. The individual rights-holder might not intend that meaning, but their intentions are inaccessible to the would-be text-miner, so any NC-licensed content must simply be avoided.

  6. hi Nick,

    You raise an important point. The current definition of NC is overly broad and problematic. The solution, from my perspective, is to fix the license. CC is about copyright. NC should simply mean "don''t sell this work", As an interim solution, I have created a post that says Education is a public good - link can be found from the bottom of the page by the CC license.


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