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A new model for the knowledge economy?

How we use and control knowledge is a subject of hot debate. The ultimate challenge is to balance competing forces for the good of society, suggests Vanessa Spedding.

There is a knowledge tug-of-war underway. Should we move towards more stringent rules for the restriction and commercial exploitation of knowledge, or towards free access for all?

Never has the clamour for either of these options been heard more loudly than now. On the one hand, open publishing models for journals are gaining a clear foothold - and some significant funding. The recent $9m donation to the Public Library of Science and its ensuing plans to launch two big open-access journals (in biology and medicine) are only the latest of an assortment of initiatives that will ultimately have visible, long-term impacts on journal publishing. The movement is attracting thousands of enthusiastic supporters.

On the other hand, the corporate community is keener than ever to tighten its grip on the knowledge in its own domain - and to gain a foothold in new domains - in order to secure profitability. This is creating intense controversy in those areas where knowledge is considered outside the realms of the proprietary (such as information that already exists about indigenous medicines in the developing world, or patents on characteristics of people, crops, and life itself, such as genetic data), and particularly where profiting from that knowledge puts life at risk, for example by creating economic barriers to medical research in poorer countries.

A clear example of this battle is being played out at the moment. Talks at the World Trade Organisation (WTO), aimed at relaxing patent licensing laws for poorer countries needing affordable means of manufacturing life-saving drugs, have collapsed following US withdrawal. This occurred as a result of intense lobbying from the pharmaceutical industry, which claimed that the new agreements would be too economically damaging. Condemnation has been widespread and prominent: John Sulston, winner of the Nobel prize for medicine, voiced the feelings of many when he wrote in the UK's The Guardian newspaper (18 February 2003, p18) of the urgent need for pharmaceutical companies to take a moral stance over drug prices. But he also rightly pointed out that we are, each of us in the West, 'locked in' to the system by virtue of our own fears about jobs, investment plans and the economy, and that we need to eradicate this 'blinkered and unethical' way of thinking.

In fact the whole debate about intellectual 'property' (IP) - who should own it, under what circumstances should it be released, how do we assign value to it and what is its price? - is so hard to unravel because it is rooted in much deeper cultural habits than simply the quest for profit.

We are all protective of our territories, and when those territories manifest themselves in the form of idea-landscapes, it is inevitable that we instinctively build fences around our ideas. Not only that, we are conditioned by the market economy in which we live to seek reward by protecting, growing and selling our assets, and to expect that reward to be material. If ideas are the new assets, we should not be surprised that, as a society, we have moved to exploit them as such. We should also not demonise those parts of society that are most efficient at the art of economic exploitation - commercial companies.

The real surprise is that the new age of the 'knowledge economy' has so rapidly brought with it recognition and open discussion of the fact that knowledge and ideas are different from normal products, that they require different treatment, and that alternative treatments are already materialising.

This is why the shift to open-access publishing is interesting. For a start, it is real, and it entails a fundamental shift of IP ownership, from the publisher back to the author. Not only that, the shift is accompanied by a concomitant upending of the reward system. Unlike the publishers, academic authors do not wish to profit from owning intellectual 'property', but rather to benefit the wider research community by allowing free access to the content ad infinitum. The rewards they do reap are the same as always: exposure, recognition within their circles, and credit for their achievements - not direct financial pay-back - since even the resultant increased access to resources for themselves only feeds back into the system. For this reason academics were perhaps always among the most likely to catalyse a new approach, but it is no less significant for this fact. The shift is revolutionary on a social as well as a business dimension: it proves not only that endeavours can be motivated by non-monetary rewards, but that indeed there is a strong drive to create systems to support this philosophy.

The new mood is reflected elsewhere, if less volubly. In the UK, the Royal Society is investigating whether laws that encourage the commercial exploitation of scientific research are helping or hindering progress in specific fields - including genetics and computing. Its report on this investigation is due out soon. Meanwhile, the UK Government's Intellectual Property Rights Commission report on whether patenting helps or hinders scientific research, concluded last year that the IP systems of developed countries are conspiring to keep poorer countries trapped in poverty, and called boldly for patent laws to be adapted in order that developing countries can gain access to research, technology and medicines.

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has also backed a report urging governments to negotiate the replacement of the WTO's agreement on intellectual property with an alternative system fairer to developing countries. Its criticism of the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement is set out in a new report 'Making Global Trade Work for People'.

Meanwhile the International Council for Science (ICSU) has collected input from the international science and technology community, ahead of the first stage of the UN World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), coming to Geneva later this year. ICSU's focus is on four key themes, which include: 'Ensuring universal access to scientific knowledge internationally' and 'Scientific data and information as a global public good'. UNESCO is also involved in this process, and states that it upholds 'universal access to information, equal access to education, cultural diversity and freedom of expression' as 'essential principles for developing equitable knowledge societies'.

Similar themes were addressed at a recent seminar entitled 'Knowledge: common heritage not private property,' organised by the UK's Scientists for Global Responsibility, in which a number of scientists discussed elements of a new collaborative paper entitled Towards a Convention on Knowledge and proposed alternative approaches to the processes of scientific enquiry, information-dissemination and assigning IP rights.

With this amount of concerned activity, and with the weight of academic and international organisations countering the might of the multinationals, the knowledge issue looks set to be a key debate of the decade, and will likely produce some serious revisions to the current model. If it goes the distance, it could result in proposals for new incentive and reward systems, in which some form of recognition for contributions made to an equitable knowledge society - whether the global society as a whole or a sub-set of the research community - is placed on a par with hard cash.

Whatever materialises, we should try from the outset to bring the commercial players into the debate. They are the experts at managing IP, and as long as industry and commerce are expected to invest in research, they also must be free to find means of extracting returns on that investment. No doubt some form of ownership will have to be upheld. But if, at the same time, the free exchange of ideas and knowledge is to be preserved and used for the good of all, perhaps the requirement is for an alternative form of return.

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