2016: A bold new future for research?
2016 is set to be a big year for copyright reform in Europe, with the European Commission working on plans to update copyright law to make it fit for purpose in the 21st century. There are big implications for research and access to data too, as Wellcome Trust policy officer Will Greenacre explains…
Copyright is not the first thing that springs to mind when you think about health research, but forthcoming changes to European copyright law will have important implications for some of the Wellcome Trust’s key priorities – especially the right of researchers to perform text and data mining as part of their work.
Text and data mining (TDM) tools enable researchers to extract and analyse information from across the body of scientific knowledge, which is expanding faster than ever. With around 2 million new scholarly articles being produced annually, and the volume of biological data estimated to be doubling every nine months, humans are no longer able to read and make sense of information on this scale – but computers can.
Text and data mining tools enable researchers to sort through masses of information in order to extract facts and insights much more quickly and efficiently than could be done simply by reading. Analysing large bodies of information also means that new insights and associations can be uncovered, with potentially huge benefits. For example, researchers have employed text and data mining in combination with laboratory work to find novel biomarkers for Alzheimer’s disease, identifying an important new avenue for research towards possible treatments.
Text and data mining also offers the opportunity to both speed up research and lower the overall cost. Preliminary analyses by ContentMine suggest that using these tools could help streamline systematic reviews – the gold standard of evidence-based medicine – be reducing the time taken to filter the thousands of papers required, reducing researchers’ workloads by at least 50%.
However, copyright law presents a barrier to using data mining tools, because computers have to make a copy of the material in order to mine it. As the vast majority of published research is protected by copyright, this puts data mining in conflict with copyright law. While a researcher may have access to material via licenses held by their institution, and is legally entitled to read it, they are not entitled to mine it. But we believe there is no reason why the right to read should not also be the right to mine.
The UK Government recognised this conflict and in 2014 introduced an exception to copyright to permit text and data mining – making the UK the first country in Europe to take this step. However, the law elsewhere in the European Union still does not permit text and data mining. Since a great deal of research is now international and collaborative, European copyright law presents a major barrier to the use of these tools – and the many benefits for health and research that they can bring.
On 9th December 2015, the European Commission issued a Communication on copyright, setting out its plans to reform European law and make it fit for purpose in the 21st century. This included a commitment to allow ‘public interest research organisations’ to carry out text and data mining. We welcome this move from the Commission, although it isn’t clear at this stage whether this will encompass commercial as well as non-commercial activities.
It’s inherently difficult to draw this distinction in modern innovation cycles, and consequently we would like to see a broader exception that encompasses all research activity, and that cannot be overridden by contract terms or unreasonable technical protection measures.
The Commission now has the task of drafting the legislative proposals that will make all this happen. This legislation will then need to be revised and approved by the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers.
Wellcome and other research organisations will be continuing to make the case in the months ahead for a modern and balanced EU copyright regime that not only permits text and data mining, but enables researchers to use these tools to their full potential. We hope that 2016 will be a pivotal year for innovative, data-driven research in Europe.