exhaustible resources is not a defunct institution, for collective ownership of exhaustible resources did not, and does not translate automatically into a chaotic struggle for possession among neighbors, nor does it result in the egalitarian distribution of use-rights. Even in western Europe today, such arrangements based upon de jure common use rights (res communas) dating from the Middle Ages have survived in the Swiss Alps and Northern Italy—e.g., the Magnifica Comunità di Fiemme, in the valley of Aviso (Trento)—where they still govern the use of tens of thousands of hectares of alpine forests, pasture and meadow land.9
I have undertaken this historical digression as a means of putting aside a number of the overly simplistic and misleading preconceptions that have developed around the popular story of the tragedy of the commons.10 Inasmuch as the “microbial commons” involve the curation and sharing of tangible research resources, the point that has been emphasized regarding the importance of user-based governance of natural resource commons is immediately germane.
But, because we are here concerned also with digital commons for sharing scientific information and data—some of it representing “metadata” that directly complements the organic material of the microbial commons—a different point should be emphasized: unlike land, the productive value of data is not diminished by “over-use” per se. Data and information are more akin to fire than to coal: one gains light from them without their being consumed in the process. This does not, however, warrant the conclusion that there is no need to restrict access to a scientific data and information commons, because it will remain “un-depleted” by repeated, intensive utilization. While the latter is true, governance arrangements cannot be discarded if the quality of data and the reliability of information is to be maintained. Data can be degraded by being mixed with other data that are inaccurate, and screening of contributed materials to minimize that form of “contamination,” standard formats for data, and accompanying minimum metadata requirements need to be enforced in other to insure the widest extent of usability of the common’s resources.
The imposition of management procedures with restrictions on contributed resources, rather than limitations on access to prevent “congestion” or “overuse” is the primary economic rationale for the “club goods” form in the case of scientific resource commons. For, in this case, and particularly that of digital research resources, the value of the commons actually improves with more intensive exploitation by members of an extensive community of expert users. The removal of recording and copying errors, and the annotation of data-files and reports that link the contents to the corpus of published research findings, and to related datasets with which they may be federated for further analysis, are semi-automatic consequences of the symbiotic relationship between a research community and the resource commons that it builds and exploits. Thus, we are here in a world very different from the “tragic commons” conjured up by Garrett Hardin,
9 See also, David P. Mitigating’anticommons’ harms to research in science and technology. UNU-MERIT Working Paper No. 2011-001, Analysis and Debate of Intellectual Property Issues, Forthcoming 2010
10 These, unfortunately, continue to figure in leading economists’ textbook expositions of the “common-pool problems”, as, for example this one in Suzanne Scotchmer’s Innovation and Incentives, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004 (p. 88): “The anti-commons is a play on words and refers to the ‘tragedy of the commons’ which is taught in freshman economics. In the tragedy of the commons peasants in early modern Britain overgrazed shared pastures (‘the commons’) because the absence of private property eliminated incentives to conserve.”