Science Publishing I: Science Commons

Some of the biggest issues in science today have to do with the prosaic questions of publishing: How do we disseminate scientific work and the underlying scientific data so that the maximum number of scientists (and members of the public) have access to it? How do we ensure that proper credit is given for work? How do we guard against fraud? The internet provides the infrastructure for solving at least some of these problems, and I’ll discuss a few newsworthy aspects of the problem in this and the next few posts.

The Creative Commons is a project to provide a set of licenses that allow creators of works in various media to reserve some rights to themselves, but otherwise allow free access and use of their intellectual or artistic creations — in the same spirit as free and open-source software. The Creative Commons group is launching a new initiative this year, Science Commons:

The mission of Science Commons is to encourage scientific innovation by making it easier for scientists, universities, and industries to use literature, data, and other scientific intellectual property and to share their knowledge with others. Science Commons works within current copyright and patent law to promote legal and technical mechanisms that remove barriers to sharing.

(Indeed, the Public Library of Science
will be using a Creative Commons license.)

Note the intent here: not just scientific publications, but “data and other scientific intellectual property” as well. As I discussed in this post, much of the physics and astrophysics literature is already publicly available through archive servers like, although these don’t provide the final versions of articles, usually only accessible directly through the appropriate journals or their web sites (and even then, only with the appropriate personal or institutional subscription). Moreover, a great deal of astrophysical data is indeed freely available online through services like the Hubble Space Telescope archive, NASA’s Astrophysical Data System and other related sites. Of course, we astrophysicists are lucky: our science is funded largely by governments who can enforce open access, not by companies who may have a financial incentive for secrecy. And indeed, much of the open-access publishing effort seems concentrated towards the life sciences, where the financial and human stakes are highest.

Still, this won’t be trivial to implement, even in astrophysics: scientists work very hard for their data, and they want appropriate control over it — and they usually want at least some sort of proprietary period before anyone else can see it. (And I’ve been involved in some projects that, to my chagrin, have never released their raw data to the public.) For example, ESO, the European Southern Observatories enforces the rule that only scientists in member countries will have direct access to the data gathered at its telescopes (although, ESO data will start to become freely available to the international astronomical community in a phased manner). On the other hand, data from US observatories like the Hubble Space Telescope is freely available to all, after a one-year proprietary period.