Analysis & Opinions - Business Daily

Open Access to Existing Technical Knowledge

| June 29, 2007

One mechanism for improving human welfare in African countries is to expand the amount of essential information that is in the public domain, that is, to expand the “knowledge commons”.

A remarkable example of the use of publicly available information was the so-called Green Revolution that helped such countries as Mexico and India become self-sufficient in food production.

The Green Revolution relied heavily on publicly-available knowledge. But the publicly available knowledge could be put to practical use only through the creation of local research institutions.

The knowledge commons is thus a critical foundation from which innovation develops. The well-established practice of providing an expiry date for intellectual-property rights, after which knowledge becomes publicly shared, is an illustration of the importance that society has historically attached to the role of the knowledge commons.

Every year, the expiration of thousands of patents brings into the public domain new knowledge that had been available only on royalty payment. That knowledge constitutes an important reservoir of ideas that can be used to meet development needs.

Scientific and medical research articles should surely be part of the knowledge commons. For the scientific and technologic communities, open-access publishing unleashes full-text literature into a single information space.

Unrestricted access to genetic and molecular information has revolutionized life-science research in recent years and has helped to establish new fields, such as proteomics and genomics.

An example of this revolution is GenBank, a public database of DNA sequences that is freely accessible to all scientists without restrictions. Academic institutions and commercial companies worldwide are licensed to use the database for product development. Open access to the broader scientific and health literature will have equally profound benefits for research on challenges faced by developing countries.

Inventors and innovators are increasingly interested in making their ideas available free of royalty for use in meeting the needs of developing countries. The Nairobi-based African Agricultural Technology Foundation is focusing on making proprietary technologies available royalty-free for developing new technologies for small-scale farmers.

In another variant of the open access model, the Canberra-based Biological Innovation for Open Society (BiOS) project extends the open-source software concept to the life sciences with an emphasis on finding solutions for challenges of the developing world. 

An equivalent revolution is taking place in medical and scientific publishing. A growing number of open-access publishers not only make information free, but publish it under innovative copyright licenses which allow readers to use the results of research in innovative ways. Such licenses maximize the usefulness, impact, and value of the literature.

For example, African health ministers are licensed to make millions of copies of the report of the first randomised trial of circumcision for HIV prevention, to give a copy to every health professional in their country, to translate it into local languages without restrictions, or to create locally relevant derivative articles.

Those examples of  “open access” and “open source” illustrate the growing interest in expanding the space for creativity by promoting flexible intellectual-property systems that seek to balance public and private interests. The main concerns of developing countries are related to having the capacity to access knowledge and building institutions that convert knowledge into goods and services. 

The challenge now is for African countries to provide the infrastructure and incentives needed by their scientific community to join the global knowledge economy.


Prof Juma teaches at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government where he directs the Science, Technology and Globalisation project.


For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Juma, Calestous.“Open Access to Existing Technical Knowledge.” Business Daily, June 29, 2007.