Electronic media have the publishing world in flux, with for-profit publishers, nonprofit publishers and professional societies jockeying for influence and control.
MIT's DSpace may enable university libraries to have more say over how research results and other intellectual property are made available to academic communities.
"Will DSpace get universities a seat at the bargaining table?" asked Hal Abelson, the Class of 1922 Professor of Computer Science and Engineering. "If the answer is yes, that will be a tremendous benefit for universities and a tremendous benefit for science."
Abelson spoke Monday at a symposium celebrating the worldwide launch of DSpace, the open-source institutional digital repository developed by MIT and Hewlett-Packard Co.
DSpace is a groundbreaking system that will capture, store, distribute and preserve the intellectual output of MIT's faculty and research staff. DSpace, which complements and supports initiatives such as OpenCourseWare, will transform how MIT distributes and archives the results of its research. It also will serve as a model for other universities and institutions with similar needs.
"Openness is a concept we all feel strongly about around here," said President Charles M. Vest. "From Linux to the Internet, the nature of new media itself supports openness. Libraries will play a major role as openness and educational technologies converge."
DSpace, which the Chronicle of Higher Education recently called "the most ambitious and closely watched program of its kind," is designed to be a sustainable, scalable digital repository capable of holding the more than 10,000 pieces of digital content produced by MIT faculty and researchers each year. This would include articles, technical reports and conference papers from MIT labs and centers, and everything from data sets, databases and media clips to visualizations and simulations used in the classroom.
As faculty members develop research material and scholarly publications in increasingly complex digital formats, they need to collect, preserve, index and distribute them. The DSpace system, which is infinitely expandable, will manage research material and publications in a professionally maintained archive to give them greater visibility and accessibility over time.
"What happens when the output of science becomes 'property'?" said Abelson, a founding member of the DSpace advisory board. The perception of university as "content factory" risks skewing the idea of what a university is all about, he said.
Scientific journals provide an invaluable service for disseminating scientific research within the scientific community, and elaborate copyright rules are in place to preserve the publishers' profit margins. But Abelson pointed out that in the digital age, information is being disseminated and manipulated in increasingly diverse ways. A strict adherence to traditional media may prevent information from being used as productively as possible.
"Scientists give their property (the articles describing their research results) to journals, and publishers own this property and all rights to it forever," he said. "The authors get some limited rights at the publisher's discretion. The university gets no rights, and the public is not in the deal at all."
Sophisticated research and linking tools may never become widespread because a large proportion of scientific material is permanently removed from the public realm or prohibitively expensive to access. A Google search, for instance, does not provide links to articles in the New England Journal of Medicine and many other journals that are available only by subscription.
"All the good stuff is locked behind electronic fences set up by the owner to protect that material," Abelson said.
Other symposium speakers included Clifford Lynch, director of the Coalition for Networked Information and former director of library automation for the University of California campuses, and James Boyle, professor at the Duke University School of Law and a specialist in intellectual property in the information age.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on November 6, 2002.