Access Is a Right: Open Science Summit 2011

Theral Timpson

This last weekend “open science” evangelist Joseph Jackson and his colleagues put on the 2nd annual Open Science Summit (we were a media sponsor). The conference was held at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View California. Midway through the first day, a small unmanned robot appeared at the door. The little fellow stopped, looked around, then proceeded directly toward the stage forcing Mr. Jackson to pick up the pesky bugger and take him out of the room. The robot provided a moment of relief from an intensive and full two day conference on all things open science. The robot could be seen as a symbol for the new movement itself. A fun, tenacious and disruptive little guy, he points us to the future.

Avid, Young Supporters

Open Science is a grassroots movement backed by a committed group of fun, irreverent, and innovative folks who aim to shake up the status quo. (Before the end of the second day, the show had generated a whopping 1,700 tweets.) Kicking off the conference was a pizza and beer session at the newly opened bio-hacker space, BioCurious. The opening party was not the typical wine and cheese reception hosted in a chic hotel and sponsored by the local high end law firm. BioCurious is a 2,400 foot lab with half the space dedicated to bench and equipment for the ‘curious” DIY group and the other half an open space for classes. Beer showed up by the case brought by volunteers and served warm. Pizza boxes propagated on folding tables next to lab benches and pcr machines. Fluorescent lights buzzed overhead.

The DIY space in Sunnyvale, CA was co-founded by Jackson and a speaker from the conference, Raymond McCauley among others. “Our policy is no editorial or ethical control,” said McCauley as part of a conference presentation aided by pictures of electric drills-turned-centrifuges and kids’ toys. McCauley, a self proclaimed ‘citizen scientist,’ announced his passion to take bio to all: scientists, entrepreneurs, and the curious.

The bio-hacker crowd has a counter-culture feel to it. One of the more entertaining presentations was the young high tech hacker, Alex Peake, who showed off a game designed to teach kids code. There are an astounding 1,900 Hacker Spaces around the world teaching youngsters to hack. Hacker Spaces is now seen as school itself, an alternative to the traditional approach with classrooms and standardized testing. “Some kids don’t like school and don’t do well with standardized tests. Hacker Spaces provides a place they can learn and enjoy the process,” said Mitch Altman, a teacher involved in the open education movement.

The Future

A rapidly growing number of supporters embrace the idea that “open” is the future of science. Folks from leading research institutes and big pharma are exploring the potential of open access, open notebook, open source. Articles on the subject proliferate online. (Here's one from The Guardian.) Since the open access journal PLoS was launched in 2003, open publishing and sharing is taking off around the world.

“Access is a right,” proclaimed Nick Shockey, a presenter from the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, or SPARC.

“Deep intellectual discussions embedded in code are not captured in a typical publication,” asserted Victoria Stodden in the keynote address.

“Less access equals less knowledge and this leads to more deaths from disease,” exclaimed Peter Murray Rust from the UK’s organization for all things open science, Open Knowledge Foundation. “I’m surprised more people are not angry about this.”

Peter was one of the fewer grey hairs in the crowd of committed supporters. And committed to what? To Science with a capital S. When we interviewed Jonathan Eisen here at some months back, he explained that open is the way science used to be. That information has become walled up in the world of publishing houses. The closed access journals were seriously questioned and even vilified throughout the conference.

“These [closed] journals are nothing more than a vanity press for senior scientists,” Murray Rust told me at a break. “They are used for branding. Nothing more.” So why do folks still use them, I ask. “It’s a political problem,” Murray Rust explained. “And things are changing. Publishing houses are using outdated platforms that have no relevance today. In the future, papers will be posted in a repository and accessed by Google. There’s no reason for so many divided specialties when we have Google.” A chemist from Cambridge, England, Murray Rust says very little that does not provoke. He asserts that the American Chemical Society nearly shut down PubMed (who has aggregated a good deal of public data) through intense lobbying efforts. According to Murray Russ one of the ACS marketing campaigns reads: open science=government censorship.


The Open Science community makes no beans about it. They’re here to disrupt the status quo. One of Jackson’s favorite soap boxes is the area of IP, and he invited two patent attorneys to speak. Stephan Kinsella belongs to the Austrian School of Economics and has some radical views. The term ‘intellectual property’ is an oxymoron to him. “There are two pillars of society, knowledge and property,” he began his lecture. Knowledge is free and should not be restricted, he argued. What we call ‘stealing’ could also be called ‘learning.’ The patent system, according to Kinsella, “imposes scarcity on something which is not scarce, i.e., knowledge. We should not mend this system, but end it.”

A less radical presentation was made by Andrew Torrance, who shared the results of a simulation game he co-created to test the hypothesis of whether patent systems foster innovation. “I asked my research assistant to find me an article on the subject and he couldn’t. So I looked into it, and I couldn’t.” After five years of research with his simulation game, Torrance found that there is more innovation in an open commons than with a patent system. “We had a highly sophisticated game where folks were rewarded for inventions. They could patent, or not, and sue each other, or not.” The results of the simulation showed that open commons always won out. There were more inventions without the patent system.

Challenges and Solutions

A conference dedicated to an ideological movement tends to have hardened supporters and skeptics as well. Missing at this conference were representatives of big name companies. BGI, the world’s largest sequencing facility located in China was an exception. Marketing Director Joyce Peng presented the story of BGI’s involvement in sequencing the recent deadly outbreak of e. coli in Germany. This effort proceeded in record time due to an open collaborative effort. Also present was Bernard Munos, formerly of Eli Lilly. Munos has been a student of pharma management and is promoting what he calls “micropharmas” as a solution to the blockbuster model that has so far served big pharma. Munos suggests that a pharma company could be as small as 2-10 individuals working in collaboration with various other labs and organizations. “Drugs could be developed with this model for less than $200 million. This is still a large number, but much less than the typical $1 billion for drug development.”

The “micropharma” idea sounds promising as an answer to what everyone has been calling broken model. This was just one of many fascinating and stimulating solutions to surface during the conference which included the presentation of new web 2.0 companies for scientists. They are worth checking out:,, OpenOnward, Quartzy, and

Throughout the conference my own skeptic thoughts surfaced. Is it this simple? Torrance claimed there was more innovation in his game, but really he meant there were more inventions. Do more inventions equal more innovation? What about the quality of each invention? One might say Lipitor® is worth a hundred small inventions. I also wonder about the new crowdsourcing model for drug development. Is there the danger of too many cooks in the kitchen? Obviously journals are serving a purpose if we still use them. Most of my skepticism was answered by the end of the day Sunday. “Traditional journals are not up to the task,” said Victoria Stodden. “First of all, they don’t know what to do with the data. An article about a computational science without the data is not scholarship. It is advertising about scholarship.” Skepticism no doubt comes from holding on to the status quo and being leary of what’s to come. But just like the little robot, new ideas for the future have entered the room. Open science has said “hello world.”

Recent article in WSJ on Open Science.

Recent article from on DIY and BioCurious