Friday, February 22, 2008

The Open Access Interviews: John Wilbanks

John Wilbanks

The goal of the Open Access (OA) movement is to have the peer-reviewed literature made freely available on the Web. That is, to remove research from behind the financial firewalls imposed by the traditional publishing model — which charges users (or their institutions) a fee to access scholarly articles, usually by means of a subscription.

"Freeing the refereed literature," argues OA advocate Stevan Harnad, is both optimal and inevitable, since in the age of the Internet most of the distribution costs of scholarly communication go away, and so continuing to restrict the number of people who can access it (by imposing artificial barriers) is to hobble science without just cause. After all, science is essentially the cumulative process in which people develop ideas, and make new discoveries, by building on the work of others. Clearly, they need to be able to access other researchers' work in order to do this.

Rather than treating research as a scarce resource that needs to be rationed, therefore, Open Access advocates argue that we should aim to maximise the number of eyeballs that can read it.

As the Open Access debate has developed, however, it has become increasingly clear that maximising eyeballs is just the first step. Open Data advocates like Peter Murray-Rust, for instance, argue that research papers also need to be accessible to machines — an argument he put to me recently with some passion. The problem today, says Murray-Rust, is that even where papers are freely available on the Internet it is difficult, if not impossible, to automatically extract the data contained in them, for both technical and legal reasons.

John Wilbanks, VP of Science Commons, has an even broader view of the role the Internet has to play in science. Like Murray-Rust, Wilbanks believes it is essential for research papers to be machine-readable. Likewise, he believes we need to develop an appropriate legal infrastructure to facilitate this. He also believes it is essential that science databases are freely available, and that these databases are interoperable — not just with one another, but with research literature.

In addition, Wilbanks believes the Internet should be viewed as a platform for facilitating the free circulation and sharing of the physical tools of science — cell lines, antibodies, plasmids etc. In a sense, he wants to see these tools embedded into research papers — so if a reader of an Open Access paper wants more detailed information on, say, a cell line, they should be able to click on a link and pull up information from a remote database. Should the researcher then want to obtain that cell line from a biobank, they should be able to order it in the same way as they might order an item on Amazon or eBay, utilising a 1-click system available directly from the article.

To make this possible, points out Wilbanks, we need to build the necessary technical infrastructure. This, he says, will require creating new ways of automating the collection, aggregation and discovery of scientific information, as well as the construction of an effective ecommerce system for the physical materials of science. And the best hope for achieving that, he adds, is by helping to create the so-called Semantic Web.

The end game, explains Wilbanks, is to make the research process as seamless and frictionless as possible. This implies that the scholarly paper is no longer simply an article to be viewed by as many eyeballs as possible, but also the raw material for multiple machines and software agents to data mine, a front-end to hundreds of databases, and the launch pad for an ecommerce system designed to speed up the process of research.

In this light, Open Access is not an end in itself, but the necessary precondition for a complete revolution in the way that science is done.

Some Open Access advocates believe that it is too early to be thinking about such matters. If — fourteen years after Harnad's seminal Subversive Proposal — the Open Access movement has still only succeeded in freeing around 25% of the peer-reviewed literature, they argue, we should remain firmly focused on freeing the other 75%, not fretting about what we do with it once it is free.

But that, surely, is too short-sighted a view. Besides, points out Wilbanks, we do not have the luxury of time, and so cannot afford to wait until the peer-reviewed literature is all available before starting to build the tools to exploit it.

If science is to continue benefiting mankind, he suggests, radical change is needed, and it is needed quickly — because science has reached the point where traditional methods are no longer able to deliver the goods.

In short, we are approaching the point where we will not be able to develop new life-saving drugs, or devise solutions to complex problems like global warming, without the kind of dramatic change in the way we do science that Science Commons envisages; for science is now so complicated that we will soon be unable to crunch the data quickly enough, or effectively enough, unless we embrace the kind of machine-driven, network-centric approach envisaged by the Semantic Web. As Wilbanks bluntly puts it, "The fact is that the complexity involved in studying a living system is such that even Pfizer — with $4 billion a year in R&D — can't handle it."

Wilbanks shared his thoughts with me during a recent telephone conversation; a conversation I had been trying to arrange ever since attending a fascinating presentation he gave at the Oxford Internet Institute one snowy February morning last year — a presentation I only succeeded in attending after digging my car out of a snowy hill in the Cotswolds!

A smallish, fresh-faced man with glasses, Wilbanks is undeniably very bright. He is also extremely knowledgeable about the life sciences. However, what I found most striking was the contrast he presented to most other Open Access advocates that I have interviewed. Open Access supporters are usually passionate and opinionated, and invariably argumentative. Wilbanks appears to have none of these characteristics.

Indeed, my overwhelming impression was of a quiet, unemotional and dispassionate man. Certainly I found it hard to envisage him getting into a heated argument about Open Access or, in fact, about much else. He seemed far too rational for that. But then, as Wilbanks himself pointed out to me, he is an "entrepreneur manager", not a lawyer, not a scientist, and not an activist.

And this is precisely what an organisation like Science Commons requires. In times of revolutionary change there is always a need for tub-thumpers able to inflame the passions, and inspire people to act. What is often forgotten, however, is that it is equally important to have effective organisers who can oversee and manage the transition. That, surely, is the role we can expect to see Wilbanks play going forward.


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