a researcher from publishing verbatim an article previously published by someone else, but it does not prevent someone from republishing the previous results in their own words. Economic mechanisms are irrelevant. What we have are social rules within the research community, which are in part policies that have been established by journals, universities, or other organizations within the community. This set of rules is specific to the research community. The legal system oversees the community but not actively. There also is a system of incentives in the research community that seemingly contradict economists’ claims that incentives should be monetary because people are driven by monetary compensation. These economic claims are simply not true.
Thus, rules observed in economics that apply to physical property do not automatically transfer to intellectual property. On the other hand, there are other economic rules and results that are more appropriate for the scientific community.
For example, in the 1930s this economic question arose: if the market is such a wonderful design, why do enterprises of more than one employee exist? How come everyone has not formed their own company? The answer, from a purely economic view, is that the transaction costs would be too large. So an enterprise is organized with internal incentives to keep transaction costs down. Certainly in science today when we see enormous transaction costs, for example, for publication and risk communication, we should consider this economic model.
There are two reasons for economic rules that govern the scientific community: (1) efficient dissemination and preservation of scientific information and (2) provision of efficient and varied incentives. Finally, let us observe that these kinds of rules and practices are highly technology dependent. For example, the current peer-review system requires that articles after submission must be sent to reviewers in a different part of the world for review.
Could such a review system have existed before current technology? It would have been very difficult. When there was no photocopying, and handwritten manuscripts were given directly to typesetters, it was very difficult to obtain several copies of a manuscript. Modern peer review became possible with the advent of typewriters and carbon paper.
Now, of course, we are experiencing another enormous wave of technological changes. In fact, the very possibility of open access is due to the technological revolution in the 1990s. We should ask the question whether it will again be necessary to revise current rules of practice because of technological change.
The rule about previous publication was established by the New England Journal of Medicine before the advent of the preprint, mimeography, and widespread photocopying. When preprints emerged a few years later, there were two different reactions in research communities. Some people believed that under this rule, papers that were presented as preprints could not be published. This meant that you could not use preprints. Other communities believed that a preprint was not really a publication, which is an astounding interpretation of the word “publication” from the patent lawyer’s point of view or just from ordinary common sense. This strange use of “publication” has persisted even to today.
The moral of the first example is that as technology advances rules regarding publications may need revisions. In another, more recent example one major publisher removed a number of research articles from listservs in response to pressure from some groups who considered the content or the wording inappropriate. If you only carried the electronic subscription, you lost access to the articles. The scientific community has, of course, serious concerns as to whether this is reasonable. This was not technically possible before. A policy must be established to govern electronic publications under these conditions.
The third example occurred in 1997 when I started an electronic journal and experimented with another system implementing a two-stage review process. The first stage consisted of a three-month open discussion period in which papers were posted on the Internet and peers were invited to submit comments. It was not anonymous; rather it was a discussion just like in a conference. After three months authors could revise their paper, which was then sent to confidential pass-or-fail referees. This scheme had many advantages: more safety, fairer treatment of the authors, better rewards for the reviewers, and better political control of reviews.