Should Scientific Information Be Free to Everyone? The Biggest Name in Science Weighs In

Science literacy and public access to technology and scholarly research are hot topics across the scientific community these days. In an age when egalitarian purists and activists are pushing for all publicly-funded research publications to be free to all, the biggest name in science is weighing in.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), publishers of Science, arguably the world’s top academic journal, held a meeting this month to engage scientists, engineers and professional organizations on the integration of human rights into their activities. This meeting of the AAAS Science and Human Rights Coalition is the latest in the association’s six-year effort to implement Article 15 of the UN International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights of 1966, which states that:

1. The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right of everyone:

(a) To take part in cultural life;

(b) To enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications;

(c) To benefit from the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author.

2. The steps to be taken by the States Parties to the present Covenant to achieve the full realization of this right shall include those necessary for the conservation, the development and the diffusion of science and culture.

3. The States Parties to the present Covenant undertake to respect the freedom indispensable for scientific research and creative activity.

4. The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the benefits to be derived from the encouragement and development of international contacts and co-operation in the scientific and cultural fields.

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While 160 nations have ratified the covenant, the U.S. has not. Despite being the most powerful member of the UN, the U.S. has been increasingly noncommittal to human rights in the context, culminating in a 2011, when the U.S. stopped paying dues to UNESCO (the UN actor in Article 15 implementation), effectively stripping a quarter of the group’s funding. The American delegation to the group still supports UNESCO, but the U.S. Congress does not. This is the only reason the U.S. delegation has not been expelled from UNESCO.

The lack of commitment by the U.S. to international human rights has largely been ignored by popular media and especially conservatives and libertarians who view the UN with great suspicion. Such mistrust has led the U.S. to be in the onerous category of not having ratified the legally-binding UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. The only other members that have not ratified this seemingly innocuous document? Somalia and South Sudan.

Despite these obstacles, AAAS members are moving forward to protect the rights of researchers globally and increase access to information and technology. As a leading publisher, this puts AAAS into a compromised position.

“If it were feasible, the right thing to do would be to make everything available immediately,” AAAS CEO Alan Leshner said a plenary talk at the D.C. headquarters.

“If everything is available for free, how do you know what’s valuable?” added Kevin Finneran of the National Academy of Sciences.

Controversy stoked by the January suicide of Reddit founder Aaron Swartz brought the intersection of copyright and free-flow information to a head. Swartz was indicted in 2011 for hacking the MIT JSTOR account, presumptively with the goal of giving the world access to all academic journals that MIT students and staff have. Swartz faced up to 35 years in prison.

The AAAS Science and Human Rights Coalition focused more on the world’s poor (i.e. internet access, cheap laptops) and scientists themselves.

“The moral and material interests of the author are also protected by Article 15,” said Molly Land of the University of Connecticut.

The unequal distribution of harm as well as benefit is an important aspect of this discussion. For example, a 1940s study by American public health researchers in Guatemala involved the intentional infection of local people with STDs. The benefit of one group at the detriment of another cannot be overlooked in the definition of the right to scientific benefits.

How can access to information and technology enhance human rights? Should governments be in the business of assuring such rights? Most importantly, how can academics contribute to human rights in the context of the politics of the Information Age?