The Washington Post has a piece on the A Fight for Free Access To Medical Research:

Why is it, a growing number of people are asking, that anyone can download medical nonsense from the Web for free, but citizens must pay to see the results of carefully conducted biomedical research that was financed by their taxes?

The Public Library of Science aims to change that. The organization, founded by a Nobel Prize-winning biologist and two colleagues, is plotting the overthrow of the system by which scientific results are made known to the world — a $9 billion publishing juggernaut with subscription charges that range into thousands of dollars per year.

Scientific journals have always been in this odd position of charging their readers money for work that the READERS produce– sort of like a restaurant charging you to put your dinner on a plate and serve it to you. That tension has been exacerbated by the growth of this alternative publishing medium (the Web) that theoretically eliminates lots of the overhead in publishing; the growth of preprints as a major form of science publishing (in lots of fields, by the time something gets into print, it’s obsolete); and the amazing rising cost of academic journals, which has only thrown these issues into dramatic relief.

This is also an example of a broader phenomenon, involving a renegotiation of the commons of ideas (something that Larry Lessig has thought very eloquently about). Historians of science and science policy types have realized that the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980 (I think it’s 1980; I’m doing this from memory)– which allowed universities to commercialize research that was publicly funded– is going to be as important to the structure of American science as the Merrill Land Grant Act of 1862 (which created the state college system), or the founding of the NSF (which helped institutionalize ongoing public support for basic science). The tremendous growth of biotech and Internet-related companies in the 1990s was partly driven by the new ability that faculty had to take their research from the lab, and move it into the commercial space– something that schools like Stanford, Berkeley, and MIT have encouraged. Stanford’s president, John Hennessy, is an electrical engineering professor who co-founded a startup. According to a friend of mine who’s on the faculty, the prevailing ethos among the engineers is that your first sabbatical should be spent doing research, and the second should be spent doing your first startup.

This is a significant cultural shift. And while it’s meant that research gets into the marketplace faster, it also may run counter to two older traditions in science: disinterestedness and openness. As Robert Merton argued, disinterestedness– broadly defined as the renunciation of direct economic or political gain from one’s research– fostered objectivity and trust, and also enhanced the ability of scientists to be open in sharing knowledge with their colleages. Essentially, the scientific community can be seen as a kind of commons– or perhaps more precisely, seen as a community whose form and norms are sustained by a commons.

The jury still seems to be out on whether this new regime has really done to that commons. For one thing, scientists have long drawn financial benefit from their expertise (Lord Kelvin consulted with telegraph companies, for example), and been encouraged to do so to a limited degree by academic institutions (a one day a week rule prevailed at lots of places); for another, universities are very keen to keep this new system in place, because they get a lot of money from it; and finally, it’s not been around long enough to get a clear view of how it’s working or not working. But it’s something to watch.

[via Paul Saffo]