24 February 2009

The True Begetter of Innovation is Openness

One of the persistent myths peddled by lovers of intellectual monopolies is that you need things like patents to promote innovation. The idea is that patents encourage new research, which then feeds into more research, and the world is a better place.

Not so, according to some rigorous new research into the effects of intellectual monopolies on science:

Scientific freedom and openness are hallmarks of academia: relative to their counterparts in industry, academics maintain discretion over their research agenda and allow others to build on their discoveries. This paper examines the relationship between openness and freedom, building on recent models emphasizing that, from an economic perspective, freedom is the granting of control rights to researchers. Within this framework, openness of upstream research does not simply encourage higher levels of downstream exploitation. It also raises the incentives for additional upstream research by encouraging the establishment of entirely new research directions. In other words, within academia, restrictions on scientific openness (such as those created by formal intellectual property (IP)) may limit the diversity and experimentation of basic research itself. We test this hypothesis by examining a “natural experiment” in openness within the academic community: NIH agreements during the late 1990s that circumscribed IP restrictions for academics regarding certain genetically engineered mice. Using a sample of engineered mice that are linked to specific scientific papers (some affected by the NIH agreements and some not), we implement a differences-in-differences estimator to evaluate how the level and type of follow-on research using these mice changes after the NIH-induced increase in openness. We find a significant increase in the level of follow-on research. Moreover, this increase is driven by a substantial increase in the rate of exploration of more diverse research paths. Overall, our findings highlight a neglected cost of IP: reductions in the diversity of experimentation that follows from a single idea.

This work basically shows that recent attempts to introduce intellectual monopolies into science in order to "promote innovation" have actually been counter-productive.

our results offer direct evidence that scientific openness seems to be associated with the establishment of entirely new research lines: more specifically, increased openness leads to a significant increase in the diversity of the journals in which mouse-articles in the treatment group are cited, and, perhaps even more strikingly, a very significant increase in the number of previously unused “keywords” describing the underlying research contributions of the citing articles.

In this context at least, it's openness that leads to more innovation, not its polar opposite. (Via Open Access News.)

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Crosbie Fitch said...

It's an insidious mindset, that infects even those who would remedy the malaise.

The author that discusses the benefit of freedom still talks in terms of 'granting control rights to researchers'.

Freedom is actually what we were all recognised to have as a natural right in the first place. This was then partly suspended by copyright and patent to privilege printers and industrialists.

I'd suggest to the author that it would be better to couch things in terms of the costs of suspending researcher's liberty to share and build upon others' published work, and the benefits of undoing that suspension, restoring the researcher's natural right to liberty.

'Control rights' are certainly not to be granted to researchers.

See Paine: "It is a perversion of terms to say that a charter gives rights. It operates by a contrary effect — that of taking rights away. Rights are inherently in all the inhabitants; but charters, by annulling those rights, in the majority, leave the right, by exclusion, in the hands of a few . . . They . . . consequently are instruments of injustice."

Glyn Moody said...

I agree - it shows how much work remains to be done to get people to look at things in a new light.

Paper on Research said...

Many institutions limit access to their online information. Making this information available will be an asset to all.