14 May 2009

The Common Thread: Open Data, Open Access

Sir John Sulston is one of this country's - and the world's - heroes. Already a one-time Nobel prize winner for his work on worms (well, cell death, more precisely), he stands a good chance of winning another one for his work on the human genome project. But his contribution there is even greater: he was one of the main people behind making the human genome data freely available immediately, with no strings attached - one of the first, and still biggest, wins for open data.

One knock-on effect was that this made patenting genes harder in those jurisdictions benighted enough to allow it - something that Sulston has railed against loudly. As it happens, there is currently a major court case in the US is trying to undo some of the stupid earlier decisions in this respect: this is a biggie, so let's keep our fingers crossed.

But Sulston is not resting on his considerable laurels; he's at it again, working this time with a traditional publisher to edit a major new series of books that will be freely available online under a CC licence:

Sir John Sulston, Nobel prize winner and one of the architects of the Human Genome Project, has teamed up with Bloomsbury to edit a new series of books that will look at topics including the ethics of genetics and the cyber enhancement of humans.

The series will be the first from Bloomsbury's new venture, Bloomsbury Academic, launched late last year as part of the publisher's post-Harry Potter reinvention. Using Creative Commons licences, the intention is for titles in the imprint to be available for free online for non-commercial use, with revenue to be generated from the hard copies that will be printed via print-on-demand and short-run printing technologies.

As for the topics:

Sulston and Harris's series, Science, Ethics and Innovation, will be aimed "at a very wide market", covering subjects from "the interplay between science and society, to new technological and scientific discoveries and how they impact on our understanding of ourselves and our place in society", and the responsibility of science to the wider world. Authors they will be looking to commission will range from academics to policymakers, opinion formers, those working in commercial scientific roles, "and maybe even politicians". "They'll be non-technical books which will appeal to any intelligent person," said Harris. "The proverbial Guardian reader."

This is whole area of openness is one where Sulston has been active for decades. Indeed, alongside open data and open access he is also a big supporter of free software, and hugely savvy about the ethical aspects of this movement. If you want to find out more about this extraordinary man and his amazing career, I strongly recommend his autobiography: The Common Thread.

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