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Happy Bloom’s Day

Today is Bloom’s Day. The anniversary of the day on which all the action and inaction of James Joyce’s great novel Ulysses takes place. I’ll be raising a glass of Guinness later but first some thoughts.

I remember a couple of years ago hearing Andrew Murray of the Bauer Centre for Genomics Research (which incidentally is has an opening for a Director of Research Affairs if anyone is interested) give a talk wearing a T-shirt with these words emblazoned across it:

“…yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.”

They are the last words of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy before she drifts off to sleep at the very end of Ulysses. I remember Andrew connected this quotation with systems biology, which is certainly a passionate business, but I have for you a much more direct link between Joyce and Open Access science.

You see Stanford Law School Center for Internet and Society Fair Use Project filed a copyright suit today on behalf of English Professor Carol Shloss against the Estate of James Joyce. Basically they are challenging the estate’s assertion that Schloss would be infringing on its ownership of Joyce’s image by quoting his published works, manuscripts and private letters on her website. Larry Lessig’s blog has some in depth analysis of the specific case but the question that I’m interested in is who does this hurt?

If the Joyce estate was less restrictive in their approach to reuse of Joyceian material what would happen? At a guess I’d say that the material would be used more. There would be greater scope for the discussion of Joyce’s work. There might be an increased interest in Joyce. Joyce’s work would become even better known. I know it’s crazy to suggest it but it might even sell a few more book.

In affect by ‘gifting’ the material for reuse rather than closing it off as they are currently doing, the Joyce estate would be increasing the value of the their archive. The same is true for scientific work. The more a scientist’s work can be distributed and discussed the more opportunity there is for their reputation to be enhanced, and the more valued they become. That is why PLoS publishes material under a Creative Commons Attribution Licence, to allow a scientists work to be used as much as possible while ensuring that the ownership of that work is never in doubt.

But this idea of publishing as providing a gift to the community which ‘returned a hundred fold’ was something I hadn’t heard articulate until I read a paper called “Investigating the ‘public’ in the Public Library of Science: Gifting economics in the Internet community” by Charlotte Tschider published this month in first monday a “peer reviewed journal of the internet”. This is clearly only because I’m not very well read since philosophers such as Jacques Derrida, Marcel Mauss and Karl Marx to name but three have apparently all bent their brains around such questions of gift and reward.

The paper itself describes a study looking at where the contents of a single issue of PLoS Biology (November 2004) have been mentioned, whether it be formal citations in journals or more general references on websites. Drawing conclusions from such a small study with no comparison with other journals isn’t particularly easy, but it is clear that papers in PLoS Biology do get a fair amount of non-academic citations, an average of four mentions per article.

So papers published by PLoS make a significant impact on the more general public. A fact supported by PLoS Biology’s position as fourth most blogged academic journal, according to Postgenomic. True it only gets about a quarter of the mentions (3.1% of the total) that the two most highly blogged journals, Nature and Science (12.7% and 11.4% respectively), but then it doesn’t publish as much material as those two behemoths.

It is a little worrying that Tschider found an inverse relation between the papers that got high scholarly citation and those with high public mention but the only way to address that imbalance is by giving scholars and the public equal access to the same resources.

Tschider sums up like this:

“Through this study, we can walk away with dynamic views of the act of “gifting” through open access publication, including the “public” in the Public Library of Science: while academics do still cite the most, the general public is playing a much larger role in PLoS Biology’s success. The liberal policies forging a “cutting edge” in journal publishing also are opening opportunities for classrooms and education throughout the world. After all, without a liberal interpretation of all three of the Bethesda-Berlin-Budapest policies, we would only have a few rights, and along with BBB rights comes better understanding of the Web as a place of intellectual sustainability. It is about time that we, as OA scholars start to truly identify the “public” in not only the Public Library of Science but our audience in other OA initiatives in meaningful and measurable ways.”

With Ulysses, Joyce demonstrated that the ordinary lives of ordinary people are as interesting and important as the daring doings of gods and mythic heroes. A lesson in humility worth pondering on Bloom’s Day 2006.

Now where’s my pint?

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