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The Scientific Commons



What are the Scientific Commons?


The Scientific Commons consists of networks for sharing scientific information and discoveries: researchers share scholarly information and discoveries among each other and with others across the globe. The principles of the scientific commons are not new, but technologies such as the printing press did not allow for the rapid and cheap dissemination of information that is possible today. Many practices as well as legal concepts that arose in that time are not well suited to the heavy digitization of our scientific resources and increased use of electronic publications that has occurred within the past decade, leading to a need to overhaul our approach to the scientific commons. Although the capabilities of sharing information have increased, the amount of open-source documents and free sharing of information has not kept up with the amount of information being presented to the scientific community.


The state of the scientific commons is difficult to describe as there are a number of different formats of scientific data and ways of publication and permitting access to this information. This is coupled with the problem that international copyrights and patents on this information continue to hinder the use of new technologies with the potential to dramatically decrese the costs of transmitting information. The main obstacle for the continuation of a scientific commons then becomes finding a way to share and use information in an ethical manner in which all credit is given to the appropriate parties and information can be shared freely among different parties. This can be used to assist in the development of new technologies in developing and and otherwise impoverished countries, among many other practical purposes.


Context within NORA

The scientific commons extends into other fields easily as science is the practice of systematically describing and explaning observable phenomena through observation and experimentation. This Network fits most closely under the sharing of information. 



Relationships to Needs


The need most directly addressed by the scientific commons is the need to learn anything and everything relevant to one's life. Since scientific research can be aimed at helping to fulfill any other needs of humans or other living things, indirectly the fulfillment of all other needs may be promoted through scientific commons.


Relationships to Resources


The scientific commons refers to the free sharing of knowledge resources: (to be linked to knowledge resources pages).

The Internet, which is the primary infrastructure supporting the scientific commons of information, requires mineral resources as well as energy to continue running.



Relationships to Organizational Forms


Free-Knowledge Cluster

  • The concept behind the scientific commons is to create a community in which knowledge may flow freely and uninhibited within the scientific community

  • The bulk databasing of scientific information will most facilitate further research if an open source format of information is created.

‚ÄčWhere the sharing of knowledge is restricted to a defined user community, or requires subscription or rental fees, it can also be placed in the committed services or sales or sharing or renting cluster of organizational forms.


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Understanding Current Patterns of Abundance and Scarcity

An Artifical Scarcity

Current abundance of information in the sciences is currently limited to those who happen to subscribe to the particular journals or databases that contain a desired set of information. While there is an abundance of information avaiilable, there is an artificial scarcity in that much of the information is restricted in access. There is some public availability of this information as many public institutions (such as public libraries) and institutions of higher education mantain subscriptions to these databases. This creates difficulty for those without the regular resources to sustain these memberships or people without access to these public institutions.


Another difficulty of the sharing of scientific information is that many scientific innovations and discoveries are protected under patents by their respective researchers, the institutions employing those researchers, or the sponsors and financial contributors of the research. Theoretically, patents are designed to provide an incentive for innovation in the short term, but a means for the wider dissemination of research results later. However, they are equally useful as tools to shut out competitors from markets long enough that open access to information later no longer matters, or to inhibit certain lines of investigation altogether (by obtaining patents but then not using them). Even if the researchers themselves would be willing to share their research results, it may happen that the organizations that funded the research will not allow this.


The commons for scientific information are hampered by the lack of agreement concerning intellectual property rights among numerous stakeholders, including governments of the US, the European Union, and of developing nations, scientists employed in academia or by corporations, universities, funding agencies, businesses, publishers, etc.Hence, developing countries may not enforce international copyright and patent laws because their interests differ from those of the United States and the European Union. They are responding to the fact that many patent and copyright holders are in their eyes overly restrictive regarding access to copyrighted materials in the first place. This is just one of the divisions affecting access to scientific information, affecting the amount of material available to the international scientific community.


There is an inherent difficulty with preserving the scientific commons in that principles of validation of scientific research results and intellectual property rights conflict with each other. This is especially true regarding innovation of procedure. By definition, scientific data can and must be able to be reproduced and replicated, but doing so is often prevented by copyrights. These copyrights can either be held by the researcher or discoverer of the information, the publisher of the information, or those who financially sponsored the research. The willingness to share intellectual property depends greatly on the type of person or organization that holds the copyrightand and to what end the intellectual property is to be used. Typically, laws governing copyrights have gotten increasingly strict  This further gets complicated by international agreements to preserve copyrights from one country to the next, which are all dependent on those governments who regulate these policies (i.e. some governments are less strict in enforcing these international agreements than others). This is a major roadblock to inducing copyright holders to relinquish their strict controls over their copyrights.


To create a comprehensive scientific commons in which all scientific information may be shared from one person to the next will require a major ideological shift about what constitutes intellectual property, the extent to which innovators are indebted to the larger community (all innovation builds on previously acquired knowledge), and how the benefits of knowledge are to be shared between individual innovators and society as a whole. In order to create a higher level of abundance, these issues must be addressed through ethical practices of utilizing information and data discovered and/or recorded by other people. For example, biomedical researchers who learn about medicinal plants from indigenous communities must adopt ways that are satisfactory for everyone concerned to ensure that their informants obtain fair compensation.


There may also be a need for a master database to link current databases in order to make better use of the data collected and to organize these data and knowledge to make them more easily searchable, while observing a code of ethics to ensure that data are not misused. This would involve cooperative efforts between these independent databases to create an engine to synergize these databases so that information may be accessed easily. This would also require a substantial server space for a portal to the assorted databases operating within the master network. This venture would be a costly and challenging effort to coordinate, but the results (having a large, free database of scientific information of many kinds) would be well worth the effort for many scientists.

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Research Funded by the Federal Government of the United States of America


There has been a recent push for government transparency in the United States, which has paved the way for a new unprecedented sharing of scientific information by government agencies. On February 22, 2013, in response to public petition, the Presidential Office of Science and Technology Policy issued a memorandum stating that all scientific research performed by a federal agency and any research funded by the federal government (e.g. projects sponsored by the National Science Foundation) will be "made available to and useful for the public, industry, and the scientific community." It also set up a new open access data portal in order to share the information. While the official memorandum has been distributed and is now a matter of public record, there has been no accessible data portal created as of yet; this will take a considerable amount of time to complete. However, the research performed by specific government agencies is currently available on their respective websites. This memorandum is part of an effort to increase government transparency and to share the ownership of discovery with those who effectively paid for the research (the American taxpayers). This is a notable contribution to the scientific commons as an open resource for scientific data, which was accomplished via public pressure and petition. The United States Federal Government has also made an executive decision to create funding awards for those who provide better or increased access to open-source data for public use. These awards were the direct result of the petition and memorandum and serve to increase the ability of the public to use these data for the common good.



Approaches to Creating Greater Abundance


Renewing the Intent of Copyrights

  • Documents to increase the sharing of information, not deterring it
  • Protect credit to the discoverer or original researcher
  • Allow for expansions of copyrighted innovations

Open sourcing

  • Allowing more opportunities for open-sourcing scientific research and innovation
  • encourage govenrments to participate in open source projects
  • Encourage privately-funded entities to support open-sourcing projects

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Links and Stories


Links on Expanding Copyright Rules for Open-Source Formats



Links to Publicly-Accessible Research Data and Databases



Links for US Government-Funded Research Policy




Bollier, David (2001). Public Assets, Private Profits:Reclaiming the American Commons in
an Age of Market Enclosure
. Washington D.C.: New America Foundation.


Bronwyn H. Hall. ”Assessing Creative and Scientific Commons.” Maastricht University and University of California at Berkeley < _Communia_presentation.pdf>


Chadwick, Andrew and Christopher May. "Interaction between States and Citizens in the Age of the Internet: “e-Government” in the United States, Britain, and the European Union." Governance: An International Journal of Policy, Administration, and Institutions; 16:2 (2003) 271-300.




Nelson, Richard R. “The market economy, and the scientific commons.” Research Policy; 33 (2004) 455–471


Reichman, J. H. and Paul F. Uhlir (2003). “A Contractually Reconstructed Research Commons for Scientific Data in a Highly Protectionist Intellectual Property Environment.” Law and Contemporary Problems, Vol. 66, No. &frac12;. (2004) 315-462.


Thursby, Marie, Jerry G. Thursby, Carolin Haeussler, Lin Jiang (2009). “Do academic scientists share information with their colleagues? Not necessarily.” Vox. <>.


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