Adapt or Die, Something Wiki This Way Comes

Adapt or Die, Something Wiki This Way Comes

The academic scientific community conventionally shares research results, ideas and expertise. Not surprisingly, the commoditization of peer reviewed journal articles seems antiquated with cost and accessibility issues when compared with online posting, web-enabled databases, free online journals and guides as knowledge dissemination tools.

In the Aug 25, 2008 edition of The Tech, these practices are described as revolutionary, but cautions against jettisoning traditional journal formats. Arguably, a hallowed place is reserved for the vetting, editing, and revising processes that add value to the peer-reviewed piece. This contrasts the rapid, unreviewed nature of new access systems.

Informal and frequent collaboration is Generation Y’s preferred alternative to the iterative review process. It’s like polling a game-show audience for consensus on correctness, BEFORE locking in the answer. By posting widely, one assumes risk and makes compromises. It’s necessary to balance the benefit of collective assistance via public posting against the loss of competitive advantage and control of future use of ideas and materials.

The article used the experience of a student/employee (Mr. Canton) to illustrate how improved dissemination leads to success. He collaborated to create a useful genetic construct. On-line posting of results (while waiting for traditional publication) resulted in incorporation of the work into 18 projects in other labs. The serial disclosure can lead to intermingling of intellectual property and present patentability issues. Future use should be monitored.

It is even possible that Mr. Canton does not own the material he posted – it may have vested in MIT. MIT has a “University owned” intellectual property policy, which defines Intellectual Property broadly. Though unstated, it is likely that the right to post this material is an academic freedom like publication.

Of course, a policy is only as strong as its ability to encompass relevant issues, and the ability to enforce it. Does the MIT’s Technology Licensing Office monitor all public disclosures coming from its community members? With 22,000+ students, faculty & employees[1],[2] it’s not possible.

So, if material is posted publicly, can we use it freely? It likely doesn’t matter who owns it – an implied license exists to read the material. The Fair Dealing Exemption in the Canadian Copyright Act allows criticism or review of copyright material without liability for infringement, provided the source is declared. However, we can use the same material freely for research or private study without declaring the source.

Is this difference fair? It’s really a non-issue: it is normal to discuss both research outcomes and the background to it in scientific publications, formal or not.

If the traditional model of intellectual elitism is eschewed, accessible posting and collaboration should benefit many. This will only be the case if institutional policies are relevant and complete, and if users abide by law AND etiquette of attribution. There remains risk that disclosure level and access provided will not be matched by collaborators and competitors. Perhaps this is the real risk of doing science in the age of the wiki.