Björn Hammarfelt

2017-05-29 10:00

The role of patent in scientific communication to be investigated

How reliable and relevant information can be disseminated effectively is a key issue for the scientific community, as well as the rest of the world. Now Björn Hammarfelt, a researcher at the Swedish School of Library and Information Science, will investigate the role of the patent as a source of information. The project is funded by one of the European Research Council's most prestigious grants, the ERC Advanced Grant.

Research about scientific publishing has often focused on publications in the form of articles or books. Patents and their role have previously been studied from an economic or legal perspective. Now researchers from several universities and organizations will study patents from an information science and historical perspective, to illustrate how they may have influenced the development of ideas in research.

Björn Hammarfelt's project is part of a larger information science project, "Patents as Scientific Information 1895-2010" (PASSIM). 

PASSIM launches this fall and has the patent's role for scientific development as a global theme. The project is funded by the prestigious ERC Advanced Grant. The scientific leader of the project is Eva Hemmung Wirtén, a professor of Mediated Culture at Linköping University and the first Swedish woman to receive an Advanced Grant in the humanities and social sciences. In the early 2000s she was also active at the Swedish School of Library and Information Science, University of Borås. 

The project involves researchers from Linköping University, University of Borås, Nobel Museum and University of Kent in England.

Discovery in an abundance of information

Within the framework of the research project Björn Hammarfelt, Senior Lecturer at the Swedish School of Library and Information Science, will study information scientist Eugene Garfield and his work, among other things. Garfield warned early on that it can be difficult for us to filter when we get too much information. Already in the 1950s he talked about an abundance of information, and then devoted his life's work to trying to facilitate information retrieval processes. His solutions became a number of databases and services, which have become extremely important in a scientific context. For example, he is behind a system called the Science Citation Index (SCI). Björn Hammarfelt explains:

"If I'm reading a scientific work from 1980, I can, with the help of SCI, look further for modern research on the same topic by finding out where the work has been cited later. Without this system, I might have just had the work's own reference list to go on, and it only points back in time. In this context, there is a difference between references and quotations. Garfield's system has made tremendous difference to how we can sift through the enormous flow of information that is available today."

Wanted to save the world

In the coming years, Björn Hammarfelt will study Garfield and his legacy further. He hopes that his studies will give a better understanding of the information systems that have become so important and what impact they have had on the scientific community that used them. He tells us that the debate about Garfield's various systems over the years has been intense, as they have come to be used to not only to search and sift through information, but also to measure researchers and their accomplishments. This has, for example, been done through a function that ranks the impact of different magazines. The success of researchers is evaluated by measuring which journals they have published in.

"Nevertheless, assessing and evaluating individual researchers was never Garfield's intent. He was an idealist who wanted to promote science globally. He believed in the product he developed, and suggested that a better information flow would make science better, and therefore also society. It was a vision he shared with one of the founders of information science, Paul Otlet, who is the focus of the project leader Eva Hemmung Wirtén's work," says Björn Hammarfelt.

"I think it's fascinating, for reasons similar to those found by Otlet and Garfield, that you can find companies dealing with information management today – it's interesting to follow the historical developments here.

When Garfield saw the need for what became SCI, he took inspiration from models used in the US legal system and built his system based on it." In a part of his project, Björn Hammarfelt will go through earlier unexplored material from Garfield's archives to gain a better insight into how the idea of Garfield's citation tools grew out of a legal context and how these links still affect how we view citations today.

Researchers want higher status

"Garfield's system is closely linked to how researchers today work to achieve higher status, which a patent may be a part of. Patenting scientific discoveries is often motivated by economic or legal aspects, but when it comes to how it affects the exchange of ideas and knowledge, opinion is divided as to what actually matters. Those in favour argue that patents encourage further discoveries, while those opposed argue that on the contrary patents have the ability to lock in knowledge and ensure that it cannot be used and built on by other researchers."

Björn Hammarfelt points out that the research previously done about patents has also primarily affected purely legal or economic aspects. How patents affect the development of ideas or the ability to convey further information about scientific results has so far been relatively unexplored.

"There is research showing that more and more patents are being produced, but that we still have not made any further achievements. There are indications that patents locks and limit creativity, but there is nothing we can say for sure. Looking at this historically can make us better understand the role patents play today. Our project is in the field of library and information science, and within that discipline we are often very practical in our focus on the present and the future. But it is also important to look back - therefore I think that this particular project is gratifying," he says.

Text and photo: Helen Rosenberg