Australian Lefty on Politics, Governance, Science and Info Management

PSI handling and rights in Vic (3)

Posted by Dave Bath on 2009-07-07

This post continues the series on the recommendations from the Victorian inquiry into use of Public Sector Information (PSI), following on from others detailed at the bottom of this post.

8. That the Victorian Government encourage as part of its funding agreements with research agencies and higher education institutions that research results be deposited in open access journals or repositories.  The Government should consider providing additional funds to these agencies to allow them to publish in open access journals that charge a fee for publication.

This is a particularly good recommendation, with PLoS being an example of an excellent peer-reviewed open-access journal (although it mainly concentrates at the moment on biomedical research, this is perhaps the research that Victoria is most famous for).

There are two "howevers":

  • If the research team has a chance of being published in Nature (and other journals in the same stable), it would be mean to deny the team the kudos of such a publisher.  Perhaps it might be worth developing such a list of journals.
  • I’m a bit dubious about "open access" journals that demand a fee for publication – Bentham Publishers infamously accepted a nonsense paper recently as discussed in "Peerless Prank" (2009-06-12), seemingly more interested in the money from authors than the quality of the work.

9. That the Victorian Government encourage divisions operating in the fields of biological innovation and research, including biotechnology development, to consider participating in the BiOS licensing system.

The BiOS licensing system (managed by CAMBIA which seems centred around Canberra) is not quite what the open source movement would consider "open", in that "members" only promise not to go after other "members" for patents violations.

Unfortunately, the patents covered explicitly include materials and methods – which opens up all sorts of abuses, especially where patents offices worldwide have problems identifying prior art.  Still, BiOS is better than nothing, may keep squatters at bay, and provides greater opportunities for start-ups.

Browsing through the (relatively short for an organization that has been operating so long) BiOS Licensed Patents Inventory, I see quite a few things that cover the sorts of things discussed in the recent Senate Gene Patents Inquiry (see also my posts about this inquiry via the "See Also" at the bottom of this post).

But what about other areas of research?  Software tools developed by government agencies or with government funding could be deposited (and maintained, even without government funding) at places like SourceForge, just like the Xena Digital Preservation Tool developed by the National Archives.

Perhaps CAMBIA can be "upgraded" so that it covers patents outside agriculture specifically and life sciences generally.  I certainly would be in favor of upgrading CAMBIA rather than creating similar organizations for other research domains.

But would we not be better encouraging more use of the ScienceCommons initiative, which is worldwide, has the public interest as the major stakeholder, and is not limited to the biosciences?  That way, Australia’s funding burden of open-access science would be much lower – leaving more money to spend on actual research!  If we wanted to spend the same amount of money as we do supporting CAMBIA, why not second public service lawyers to the ScienceCommons initiative?

10. That the Victorian Government encourage departments to identify and publish materials under NEALS to allow these materials to be used freely for educational purposes by Australian schools.

The National Education Access Licence for Schools is an opt-in agreement between various Australian Governments (with WA the least helpful) to minimize copyright fees for materials used for education.

NEALS is a licence agreement between educational bodies of the various Australian States and Territories for schools.  It allows Australian schools and educational bodies to copy and communicate print and digital material for educational use in schools free of charge.  The Agreement covers both websites and publications.  All material published by Australian schools and educational bodies for educational purposes will automatically be covered by NEALS, unless it is expressly excluded.  The objective of NEALS is to reduce the copyright fees paid by Australian schools under Part VB of the Commonwealth of Australia Copyright Act. – source –

NEALS is a good thing if it helps cut costs in the same way as institutional subscriptions by universities to scientific journals provide cost-effective access to materials.  However, in practice, I get the impression that it mainly covers materials generated by Australian educational institutions and departments, in which case, NEALS would be an anachronism once PSI is truly open-access.

To see what can be done, it is worthwhile looking at all the course materials, both undergrad and postgrad, provided by OpenCourseware at MIT.

As an aside, if all course materials were copylefted, there would be interesting data from download records of lecture notes from universities, indicating which institutions and faculties produced the most useful notes, and possibly forming input into recurring funding of universities by government.

11. That the Victorian Government develop a consistent copyright licensing system for use across all government departments.

Implementing this should take about 5 minutes and could be completely covered in a two paragraph press release.

It’s called the Creative Commons Licence, probably involving the "Attribution Share-Alike" clauses similar to the CC licence for material I produce in this blog.

The Creative Commons Licence system has stood up in court, is widely understood, and would avoid any of the costs involved in drafting a consistent copyright licensing system within Victoria, or indeed Australia.

I’ve looked to see if the CC licenses preclude limited distribution (such as within Australian governments, but not released to the public), and cannot see such gotchas.  I’m not a lawyer though!

12. That the Victorian Government establish a central office to develop a copyright licensing system, and provide advice to government on government copyright.

Aarrrgghh!  Again, why have a central office and waste money developing an appropriate system for material that is released when the Creative Common Licence system is rock solid and costs us nothing?

If you accept the principle that PSI should be released to the public, if only as the default position, then anything drafted (especially in Victoria where agencies cannot get a grip on how to right a tight contract) will not be as good as the Creative Commons licence system, especially in non-Australian jurisdictions.

And why in the age of co-operative federalism and the internet should Victoria’s needs be any different from those of other Australian jurisdictions?   Even if you do want to waste money in a way antithetical to the thrust of the recommendations, why waste it multiple times?

13. That exclusive arrangements not be entered into for licensing Victorian Government public sector information, excepting exclusive rights necessary to protect the public interest.

Before the comma good, after the comma bad.

The jury has been in for some time, the public interest is best served by letting all information (not covered by security or privacy concerns) run wild, munged by as many innovative people as possible, and hopefully made easier to understand by visualizations such as those on the ManyEyes Project.

What public interest considerations could the weasels be considering?  Revenue streams from publication of books through an exclusive publisher?  Grrrrrr.  Do I smell a rat?  Yes, and not so honorable as Polonius (look what secrecy cost him!).

Section 2.2 of the EDIC Report is worth reading, as is the disingenuous spin in the finding of section 2.2.1, which subtly tones-down the inferences of studies showing the benefits of freed data, even though no information in the report (or even rock-solid comments from self-serving submissions) is available to contradict the studies in favor of free access PSI.

14. That the Victorian Government adopt the Creative Commons licensing model as the default licensing system for the Information Management Framework.

Nominating the Creative Commons licensing model is sensible, and section 6.3 of the report goes into details of the CC licences, along with the following:

CC licences are currently utilised by agencies in the Commonwealth and Queensland Governments. The Queensland Government estimates that CC licences will be applicable to 85 per cent of government PSI.

So, why the ambiguous wording in the recommendation that could be interpreted as meaning that the Information Management Framework itself should be put under a CC licence, rather than all PSI that should be publically released?

As noted earlier, there are various flavors of CC licence.  I cannot see why "Attribution" (the "-BY-" part of the CC-BY-SA licence for this blog) would inconvenience anyone but evil plagiarists, and the "Share Alike" rule can only be good for Victoria if someone outside Victoria value-adds to the data.

Enough for now… stay tuned.  Hopefully I’ll be feeling a bit better and the next installment won’t be sitting part-done in my drafts folder for so long.

See Also/Notes

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