Science Commons

What is Science Commons?

We are a branch of the nonprofit Creative Commons, devoted to easing unnecessary barriers to the flow of scientific knowledge and technical information. We work to encourage scientific innovation by making it easier for scientists, universities, and enterprises to share scientific literature, data, and materials. Our goal is to encourage stakeholders to create – through standardized licenses and other means – areas of free access and inquiry; a ‘science commons’ built out of private agreements, not imposed from above.

Does your approach offer anything new, anything practical, anything worthwhile?

We believe so, and so do a lot of people who have reason to know. The Editors of both Nature and Scientific American have devoted recent editorial space to us – Nature asserting that “more organizations should sign up with…Science Commons” and Scientific American saying “the introduction of Creative Commons’s middle path of ‘some rights reserved’ is surely a welcome arrival.” We have received very positive reactions from scientists (including our advisory board), universities, and businesses. The task will be a difficult one, but most worthwhile things are.

Who started Science Commons?

Intellectual property experts James Boyle, Michael Carroll, and Lawrence Lessig, MIT computer science professor Hal Abelson, and lawyer and documentary filmmaker Eric Saltzman created the Science Commons project in early 2004. Our advisory board includes patent law and science policy expert, Arti Rai, computational biologist and open publishing guru Michael Eisen, Nobel prize winning biologists Joshua Lederberg and Sir John Sulston, and distinguished innovation economist Paul David.

John Wilbanks joined as executive director in the fall of 2004; he is based at and receives generous support from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.

Is Science Commons part of MIT?

No, but Science Commons does share space, personnel, and inspiration with MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL).

What problem does Science Commons intend to solve?

Science has always depended on the free flow of information. Over the last three decades, a combination of legal change and evolving social norms in science has created a tangled web of intellectual property and professional secrecy that sometimes restricts that flow of information. Some of these changes occurred for good reasons. Intellectual property rights may be needed to encourage investment in research or in bringing innovations to market. Yet not all of the changes are good, and they come with many unintended consequences – thickets of rights that must laboriously be worked through, non-standard licenses that make each transaction slow and expensive, cumbersome materials transfer agreements that slow down the process of experimentation.

The long term impact of such complex webs of intellectual property is severe. Research into rare diseases, or diseases of the global poor, can become too expensive – simply to get the lawyering done, not the science. University tech transfer offices can become clogged with requests that ought to be routine. The end result is one that benefits no one – less research, less innovation, less diffusion of knowledge.

Where can I get some data on this problem?

The Journal of the American Medical Association published a study in 2002 describing a world where 47% of academic geneticists had been rejected in their efforts to secure access to data or materials related to research by other academics. This reprented an increase from 34% from a previous study in the mid 1990s.

For more data, please see our recommended reading page.

Why did CC get into science?

The Board always felt that the sciences might be an ideal place to apply the “some rights reserved” philosophy. However, we also felt that we should take our time, develop and validate our approach in the world of copyrights and culture, and explore how this might work in science.

Why are you launching Science Commons now?

Our licenses are already being used in important parts of the peer reviewed publishing world (Public Library of Science, BioMed Central).

We have also been working with rare disease foundations (HighQ Foundation for Huntington’s disease for example) to develop applications of the CC philosophy for licensing and technology transfer, and we’ve been contacted by some of the most important public databases in the life sciences.

So we decided last year to take our work from an informal exploration to a structured project – the community told us it was time.

Are you against intellectual property?

Not at all. Creative Commons, with its philosophy of “some rights reserved,” depends on intellectual property. The idea is that authors can specify easily, cheaply and in a standardized way, just how their work may be used and shared. By choosing what they wish to share, and under what terms, those authors have created a privately constructed “cultural commons” composed of millions of licensed works. Science Commons plans to use many of the same tools – taking account of the considerable legal and institutional differences.

What have you already done?

The two largest Open Access publishers – the Public Library of Science and BioMed Central – have adopted CC licensing.

Both MIT’s Open CourseWare and the Rice Connexions courseware projects have adopted CC licensing.

What are you doing next?

The HighQ Foundation has asked Science Commons to investigate legal, organizational and technical approaches to licensing in rare diseases. The Science Commons Literature Working Group is hard at work on solutions for scientific publishing.

The Science Commons Licensing project is investigating legal mechanisms to ensure access to needed medicines in the developing world, modular, machine-readable versions of the Uniform Biological Materials Transfer Agreement (UBMTA) and standard licensing approaches for information technology.

The Science Commons Data project is investigating legal solutions for public/private databases of genomic and proteomic information, geographic and geospatial data, “traditional” knowledge from the developing world, and data generated in a social context (primary field work from anthropology and archaeology).

Is Science Commons only about legal products such as licenses?

No. Science Commons is also working on educational materials and curricula, organizational designs (technology trusts, patent pools, etc) and, in some cases, simply bringing together stakeholders to talk about how the law can hinder innovation.

Is Science Commons building a database of licensed content?

Absolutely not. We believe in the Net, not a centralized, information bank controlled by a single organization. We are building tools so that the semantic web can identify and sort intellectual property in a distributed, decentralized manner. We are not in the business of collecting content, or building databases of content.

Do you get paid for all these services? Is this some kind of consulting scheme? Or some way to help your own scientific research?

No. Science Commons is a non-profit organization. (Creative Commons is a registered non-profit corporation in Massachusetts.) Science Commons sees one of its most important roles as being an “honest broker.” In fact, it is precisely because Science Commons is not a stakeholder that we believe we may be able to help groups reach agreement. We are not doing scientific research or funding it, working for university interests, or for corporations. Our legal products are free and our advice is disinterested.

Who funds Science Commons?

Science Commons received seed funding from the HighQ Foundation and is also supported by Creative Commons (which has been funded by generous donations from the Center for the Public Domain the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and the Hewlett Foundation, amongst others.)

Does Science Commons work with any other organizations or institutions?

Science Commons is pursuing collaborations with a few like-minded organizations. See our links page to learn more, or contact us if you or your organization would like to help.

This is a great idea! How can I help?

We want your feedback and welcome your input and participation. Please contact us.