Juliet Dobson: Should information be free?

Juliet DobsonShould information be free? Does any good come from restricting access to it? These questions were the topic of conversation at a talk hosted by IQ2 at the Dana Centre, on Tuesday 22 February.

The discussion opened with Daniel Glaser from the Wellcome Trust asking whether scientists should make their research data free. The Lancet published a letter on 11 January 2011, which is signed by many of the world’s leading research funders. It commits them to improving data sharing in the public health community. Glaser argued that scientists should share their data to help progress research. But as a scientist himself he admitted that he would find it upsetting to see someone else publish research based on his data, which took him years of effort and hard work to obtain.

On the positive side Glaser thought that sharing data would make scientists more honest because they would fear being discovered if they fudge their data. Someone from the audience also pointed out that it would be very useful if scientists shared their data about research that didn’t work to save everyone else the wasted effort of repeating the same thing.

Nicola Triscott, from the Arts Catalyst, spoke about the “harm principle,” the principle being that it is fine to follow what you want to do as long as it doesn’t harm anyone physically or morally. In this context the issue of commercial harm is also important. An audience member argued that the crucial aspect of the “harm principle” is who determines whether something is harmful or not. Everyone will have varying degrees of what is and isn’t acceptable.

The other member of the panel, Murad Ahmed, the technology correspondent on the Times, who was pressed on the issue of the News of the World phone hacking case. Should all information be free, even if unearthing it requires invading people’s privacy? He argued that journalists have to act responsibly and that there should be a limit to what information is revealed. He said he was amazed that phone hacking could have happened, but at the same time understood the pressure on a journalists to get that “top story.” The problem is our appetite as an audience for such private information. It pushes journalists to seek out ever more. But he argued that a journalist has to know when to censor and protect sensitive information.

Another relatively new channel that offers a wealth of free information is of course, social media. A member of the audience, a university lecturer, said that he worries about how much his students are willing to reveal on Facebook, especially because they don’t know how the information could be used against them later in their lives. Drunken photos from a student night out might seem funny when you are still a student, but 20 years down the line they are less so. The New Scientist recently floated the idea that people could soon make money out of protecting your reputation online, which shows just have far we have come in revealing our personal information online. Facebook employs a psychologist who recently has observed a trend on Facebook to “de-friend” people to maintain some personal privacy, maybe a sign that people are wising up to how free they want information about them to be.

Twitter was discussed in light of the recent events in the Middle East. On the one hand Twitter is proving very useful for the protesters in rallying people together, but it is also a great way to keep tabs on people. Clay Shirky has said before that, “there is a difference between accessing information, and accessing conversation.” Twitter is a conversation and therefore gives people great insight into what people are thinking as well as doing. On a slightly different note, Glaser wondered whether Twitter users, who are clearly happy to share information freely, would feel differently if Twitter made public all the “private” messages that can be sent on Twitter. Perhaps then even the world’s over sharers would think twice about sharing everything.

A colleague from the BMJ suggested that information needs to be “better,” not “free.” He was thinking in terms of medical research and pointed out that journals such as the BMJ act as filters, only publishing a very small percentage of the submissions they receive. Murad Ahmed suggested that the most important thing is for information to be true and of the highest quality. That is why we need research to be peer reviewed, and that is why we need to pay for good quality journalism. He defended the decision of News International to put their publications, like the Times behind a paywall. “If we don’t get online journalism to pay then in 10 years’ time we won’t be able to afford our foreign bureau,” he said. So if we want good quality reporting then we have to be prepared to pay for it. There is no point in everything being free if it isn’t worth reading.

The discussion was over all too quickly, and I felt that there wasn’t enough time to get into the topic properly. In many ways the talk exceeded my expectations because of the breadth of ideas that we discussed. I had expected it to focus on scientific data and paywalls. But I also left feeling like I had been to a brainstorm rather than a debate, and that I hadn’t come to any kind of conclusion, just a lot of different things to think about.

Juliet Dobson is the assistant web editor and blogs editor, BMJ