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Free Community Science and the Free Development of Science

Posted by plosmedicine on 30 Mar 2009 at 23:38 GMT

Author: Richard Stallman
Position: President
Institution: Free Software Foundation
Submitted Date: December 19, 2004
Published Date: December 19, 2004
This comment was originally posted as a “Reader Response” on the publication date indicated above. All Reader Responses are now available as comments.

In Free Community Science, where large numbers of scientists participate as volunteers in a single project, the ideal of scientific cooperation finds a new expression. Free Community Science was
inspired by the Free Software Movement, which itself was inspired by
the application of the ideal of scientific cooperation, as it was applied to software development by the operating system developers of the MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab in the 1970s. This ideal has
suffered for two decades from corporate pressure to privatize science, so it is very gratifying to see that Free Software can today help reinvigorate the principle that inspired it.

The ideal of scientific cooperation goes beyond the conduct of individual projects. Scientific cooperation is also being
reinvigorated today through the Open Access Movement, which promotes the public's freedom to redistribute scientific and scholarly
articles. In the age of the computer networks, the best way to disseminate scientific writing is by making it freely accessible to all and letting everyone redistribute it. I give a vote of thanks to the Public Library of Science for leading the campaign that is now gaining momentum. When research funding agencies pressure journals to allow free redistribution of new articles they fund, they should apply this demand to the old articles "owned" by the same publishers--not
just to papers published starting today.

Journal editors can promote scientific cooperation by adopting standards requiring internet publication of the supporting data and software for the articles they publish. The software and the data will be useful for other research. Moreover, research carried out
using software cannot be checked or evaluated properly by other scientists unless they can read the source code that was used.

A significant impediment to publication and cooperation comes from university patent policies. Many universities hope to strike it rich with patents, but this is as foolish as playing the lottery, since
most "technology licensing offices" don't even cover their operating costs. Like the Red Queen, these universities are running hard to stay in the same place. Society should recognize that funding
university research through patents is folly, and should fund it directly, as in the past. Meanwhile, laws that encourage universities
to seek patents at the expense of cooperation in research should be changed.

Another impediment comes from strings attached to corporate research
funding. Universities or their public funding agencies should ensure
private sponsors cannot block research they do not like. These sponsors must never have the power to veto or delay publication of
results--or to intimidate the researchers. Thus, sponsors whose interests could be hurt by publication of certain possible results
must never be in a position to cut the funding for a specific research group.

The Free Software Movement, the Free Redistribution policy of this journal, and the practice of Free Community Science for developing diagnostic disease classifications, are all based on the same
fundamental principle: knowledge contributes to society when it can be
shared and developed by communities. All three face opposition from those who would like to privatize knowledge and charge tolls for its use. In the Free Software Movement we have 20 years experience in
resisting this opposition, and we have built up considerable strength
and momentum. We can give the other two movements a boost, so they can advance more quickly.

Competing interests declared: I own stocks through mutual funds that are rather general, and I don't know what companies they invest in.

My only professional relationships are with the FSF and the Union for
the Public Domain. A list of the FSF's corporate donors can be found
on the web site

I have got probably 60 different travel grants and honoraria this year. Most were from universities, conferences, and government bodies, but there were also Google and OSDL.