Guest post | How a politicians’ thesis could affect a country’s scientific culture

The president of the Colombian House of Representatives, Congresswoman Jennifer Arias, allegedly plagiarised parts of her master’s thesis. The Colombian Universidad Externado explained in a recent press release that journalists are denied access to the thesis based on copyright concerns.

This is a case of public interest, since the validity of the academic degree of a public official is being discussed. But here my focus is on another aspect of public interest — the reach of intellectual property when faced with claims for promoting public knowledge. This assertion by the university can also have a dangerous impact on the ecosystem of academic research.

Let ‘s look at why.

Participating in academia means accepting public scrutiny

A central element of the scientific method is the publication of research outcomes. This is because science must be constructed through a mechanism of dialogue and confrontation of ideas. To confront an idea, it must be released for examination.

The very term “thesis” recognizes the import of its public nature. The work derives from the Greek θέσις, meaning “something put forth.” Aristotle described a “thesis” as “a supposition of some eminent philosopher that conflicts with the general opinion,” calling for others “to take notice.”

The person who enters an academic program with a thesis as a degree requirement knows that the process includes the evaluation and validation of that thesis by peers. Public presentation of the arguments for scrutiny and criticism is the implicit agreement of the degree seeker. The person obtaining the academic diploma has to comply with these academic rules. If you don’t want to take on that responsibility, then you should not sign on to get a degree requiring a thesis.

In the case of Congresswoman Arias, the university dismissed that context and accepted a maximalist claim that the writer of a thesis can prevent its publication for any reason by virtue of their copyright in the underlying work. This maximalist view of author’s rights – including a right to prevent public interest inquiries – assumes that the author’s right to exclude uses of works is paramount over all other public interests. We must continue to reject this idea.

Copyright can promote human rights, including by giving authors an incentive to increase the world of knowledge. But copyright can also conflict with human rights, including as here, where claims of ownership deny the public a right to receive and impart information critical to democratic decisions making. In this situation, copyright claims must give way.

This does not mean that everything is public and nothing is protected

It is important to clarify that the assertion of a public interest in Congresswoman Arias’s thesis does not mean that “anything goes” and that copyright does not apply to these works or that they are always public. At this point it is necessary to mention at least two aspects:

  1. The rule is that every thesis must be open to public scrutiny and criticism, which is achieved over time by being available for consultation and loan in the university library. But this rule has exceptions. If the thesis includes trade secrets, unregistered patent issues or sensitive data – for example – those passages are confidential. But even then, what is not confidential in the thesis should be open to public criticism and scrutiny.
  2. Just because the thesis is deposited and can be consulted in the library does not mean that anyone can make any use of it. Of course, anyone can read the thesis, but, as with any other content, the author of the thesis must expressly authorize additional publications of the work, for example in a book or journal by a publisher.

The Externado’s interpretation – which possibly other universities subscribe to – that authors control the possibility of consulting and lending the work to the public in the library is not only ignorant of academic culture. It also makes it easier for the texts to be lost and for obscuring what their authors wrote when they are not available for criticism.

But, above all, this interpretation continues to lead us to a situation where, in the name of copyright, we end up having to ask permission even to read. And, what is more serious, academia itself is quietly accepting this.

I hope the Externado University reviews the interpretation they offered. And hopefully academia will reclaim its scientific culture open to public scrutiny, because if not we will end up needing a copyright exception to guarantee access to scientific methodologies.

The University’s misinterpretation also shows why Colombia is far away as a country in the current international discussions on copyright. If we have not resolved that reading what is presented as an academic result is a right, imagine how far we are from discussing (for example) the need for other research rights in copyright, such as to conduct text and data mining research that allows science to make use of digital reading tools.

Protecting the public interest within the framework of intellectual property is a collective task

The flexibilities of the copyright system that permit research and other critical public interest uses of works are critical to maintaining the transparency of the research process and, ultimately, to preserve the academic research ecosystem. And that is a responsibility shared by several actors, such as universities and the national copyright office.

The Ministry of Science and Technology and the academic and scientific communities also have their role to play: they all need to make sense of the copyright rules in their context and must incorporate the corresponding elements of public interest. It is desirable, in this context, that for this purpose they maintain their critical capacity in the face of the current copyright dogmas.

However, in the case of Arias, the judges will now play the leading role. The university passed the case to the Council of State and the Supreme Court opened an inquiry ex officio. The judges will have to go beyond the media and political scandal to analyse the actual text in dispute. Copyright rules cannot prevent this inquiry. But neither should they prevent the public inquiry into this matter since we are the ultimate judges of our political leaders.

(The original Spanish version was published here)

Featured image by Jeisson Daniel Rondón.

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Executive director of the Colombian civil society digital rights organization Karisma Foundation. She is a researcher, lawyer, lecturer, writer and consultant on topics related to law and technology. Aligned to Karisma's purpose, Carolina works for a world where human rights and social justice guide the development and deployment of technology. Carolina holds a master's degree in international law and cooperation (VUB - Belgium), and a master's degree in Business and Contracting Law (2006, UAB - Spain). She serves on the Board of Creative Commons, and on the Steering Committee of CSISAC, the civil society constituency at OECD.