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Agricultural & Environmental Letters - Commentary

Land-Grant University Faculty Attitudes in and Engagement with Open Source Scholarship and Commercialization


This article in AEL

  1. Vol. 2 No. 1 170008
    unlockOPEN ACCESS
    Received: Mar 14, 2017
    Accepted: May 01, 2017
    Published: May 19, 2017

    * Corresponding author(s): ilgoldma@wisc.edu
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  1. Brad Barhama,
  2. Irwin Goldman *b,
  3. Jordan van Rijna,
  4. Jeremy Foltza and
  5. Maria Isabella Agnesa
  1. a Dep. of Agricultural and Applied Economics, Univ. of Wisconsin, Madison, WI 53706
    b Dep. of Horticulture, Univ. of Wisconsin, Madison, WI 53706
Core Ideas:
  • The push for open source/open access science recalls the formation of land grant universities.
  • A 2016 LGU faculty survey revealed strong support for open source/open access science.
  • Most based research choices around scientific curiosity than commercialization potential.
  • Plant scientists had the highest reliance on licensing revenues but still only 3% of total lab revenues.
  • It may be time to reassess the research model of public universities.


Based on a nationally representative survey done in 2016, this article examines the attitudes and activities of agricultural and life science faculty at US land grant universities with respect to open access/open source versus commercialization of research. The findings reveal pervasive faculty support for open scientific inquiry and sharing of knowledge and relatively low levels of participation in and laboratory market funding associated with commercialization activities. These results point toward the potential timeliness of a reassessment of public universities policies and public relations with respect to open science and commercialization.


    IPR, intellectual property rights; LGU, land-grant university

Thirty-five years have passed since the rise in university life science commercialization efforts spurred by two major legal changes in 1980, the Bayh–Dole Act and the US Supreme Court case of Diamond v. Chakrabarty (Thursby and Thursby, 2011). This article explores past and present faculty attitudes and activities with respect to open access/open source scholarship and commercialization at US public research universities. It exploits a unique dataset that features a 2016 random-sample survey of agricultural and life science faculty at top-tier public research institutions in every state (Barham et al., 2017), and we emphasize the experiences of faculty in core agricultural and natural resource areas, including plant and animal scientists. Faculty at land-grant universities (LGUs) have been center stage in the US—and indeed the globalized—life science commercialization push (Perkmann et al., 2013).

The results presented here draw on the 2016 survey as well as similarly designed, large random-sample surveys of faculty at the same LGUs in 1995 and 2005 (Barham et al., 2014). Faculty responded to attitudinal questions about open access/open source provision and broader values shaping their research priorities. They also reported on scholarly activities and outputs including the degree of participation in and funding derived from commercialization activities, such as patents, licenses, and start-ups. These data allow for statistically representative comparisons over time and across fields of study in the agricultural and life sciences.

The findings demonstrate strong faculty support for open access/open source science, mixed experiences across scientific fields in terms of access to research materials, and low levels of engagement in and reliance for laboratory support on commercialization activities. As a result, we raise the question of whether public university research policy should entertain a selective or a broad shift to promoting research as a public good, with free and unfettered derivative use consistent with the current push for open access/source journals, software, and inventions.


How the growing global reach of intellectual property rights (IPRs) affects the production of knowledge and the pace of innovation in the life sciences and other fields remains a highly contested question in academic and policy circles (Henry and Stiglitz, 2010; Jefferson et al., 2015). For the past 35 years, US universities, especially those active in the life sciences, have strongly encouraged faculty to pursue IPRs via invention disclosures, patents, licenses, and start-ups (Thursby and Thursby, 2011). Plant, animal, and microbial systems became targets for discovery and licensing from the laboratories of the large number of university faculty focusing on these systems in colleges of agriculture and life sciences at LGUs.

The number of US university technology-transfer offices expanded from 25 in 1980 to more than 230 in 2004. Invention disclosures, patent applications, and licensing income all grew by two- to threefold between 1996 and 2007 at US universities reporting to the Association of University Technology Managers annual survey (Thursby and Thursby, 2011). Over the past decade, university commercialization efforts have expanded further, although more slowly. According to AUTM (2015), there was $2.5 billion in university licensing income in 2015, which was 50% higher than in 2007, while invention disclosures were 25% higher in 2015 than in 2009. Many European universities also jumped into the IPR game, although often with less direct university control of patenting activity (Geuna and Nesta, 2006; Lissoni, 2012). Around the globe, universities have established considerable institutional infrastructure to identify and protect IPRs associated with discoveries and inventions made by their scientists.

This rapid expansion of IPRs into university research circles has led to a high level of controversy and concern about the impacts this shift could have on the growth of scientific knowledge and the pace and direction of innovation in society (Henderson et al., 1998; Gallini, 2002; Geuna and Nesta, 2006). In response and in partial opposition to the expansion of IPRs, many recent initiatives from scientists and alternative institutions have emerged to promote open access/open source journals and innovation exchanges, such as CAMBRIA, PLoS scientific journals, and Addgene (Kamens, 2014). These efforts provide examples for how incentives to innovate can be sustained in a more open intellectual property rights regime (Lence et al., 2016), although we are also aware of the presence of predatory open access journals that attempt to capitalize on the intense pressure on researchers to publish (Edwards and Roy, 2017).

Such a recent global push for open science can be viewed, in a way, as seeking “back to the future” changes, especially with respect to US LGUs. Prior to the 1980s, the basic ethos, especially in colleges of agricultural and life sciences in US LGUs, was to publicly and openly share scientific findings and discoveries through a variety of mechanisms relevant to the field of study. Indeed, it was standard practice to view scientific advances and innovations, in plant and animal breeding, agronomic practices, chemical reagents, and agricultural engineering technologies, as public goods to be openly shared to advance science and development of valuable products and processes (Luby and Goldman, 2016).

Attitudes and Experiences with Open Access/Open Source Science

In spring 2016, we administered a survey to nearly 3000 agricultural and life science faculty at all of the US 1863 LGUs (the survey was approved by the Institutional Review Board at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, #2015-0924). The survey generated 950 responses, a response rate of 35%, which when tested, showed no response bias by university size or quality ranking (Barham et al., 2017). Survey questions (available on request) covered a broad range of topics relevant to faculty research, teaching, and outreach activity.

The main results came from faculty responses to three attitudinal questions about open access/open source science (Tables 1–3). We divided the faculty into seven field areas of study commonly found in colleges of agriculture and life sciences in US LGUs: agricultural/biological engineering, animal sciences, biological sciences, environmental sciences, food and nutritional sciences, plant sciences, and social sciences. Each respondent was grouped into one of these field areas of study based on their self-reported discipline(s).

View Full Table | Close Full ViewTable 1.

Percentage of respondents who agree or disagree with the following statement: “Open source provision of articles and inventions can strengthen the potential for researchers to freely exchange ideas and enhance access to the scientific resources they need for successful research.”

Agricultural and engineering sciences Animal sciences Biological sciences Environmental sciences Food and nutrition sciences Plant sciences Social sciences Total
Strongly disagree 2.0 3.6 0.0 2.6 1.4 0.3 2.7 1.6
Disagree 6.0 0.9 5.2 2.0 7.0 3.0 2.7 3.2
Neutral 30.0 26.8 19.6 19.6 28.2 19.7 34.3 23.9
Agree 46.0 40.0 40.3 54.3 45.1 49.2 41.8 46.5
Strongly agree 16.0 28.6 35.1 21.6 18.3 27.9 18.5 24.8
Observations 50 112 77 153 71 305 146 921
Mean 3.7 3.9 4.1 3.9 3.7 4.0 3.8 3.9
P value† <0.001 <0.001 <0.001 <0.001 <0.001 <0.001 <0.001 <0.001
P values represent t tests of means equal to neutral (3).

View Full Table | Close Full ViewTable 2.

Percentage of respondents who agree or disagree with the following statement: “Open source journals are readily available for researchers in my discipline to use.”

Agricultural and engineering sciences Animal sciences Biological sciences Environmental sciences Food and nutrition sciences Plant sciences Social sciences Total
Strongly disagree 2.0 4.5 0.0 0.6 0.0 1.3 2.8 1.6
Disagree 12.0 4.5 5.2 11.0 12.7 5.9 16.6 9.0
Neutral 30.0 23.2 15.6 19.5 26.8 20.0 31.0 22.6
Agree 38.0 47.3 46.8 50.6 43.7 47.9 39.3 45.9
Strongly agree 18.0 20.5 32.5 18.2 16.9 24.9 10.3 20.8
Observations 50 112 77 154 71 305 145 919
Mean 3.6 3.7 4.1 3.7 3.6 3.9 3.4 3.8
P value† <0.001 <0.001 <0.001 <0.001 <0.001 <0.001 <0.001 <0.001
P values represent t tests of means equal to neutral (3).

View Full Table | Close Full ViewTable 3.

Percentage of respondents who agree or disagree with the following statement: “Open source inventions such as seeds, reagents, enzymes, algorithms, machines, and technologies are readily available for researchers in my discipline to use.”

Agricultural and engineering sciences Animal sciences Biological sciences Environmental sciences Food and nutrition sciences Plant sciences Social sciences Total
Strongly disagree 8.2 5.4 2.6 3.4 14.1 3.6 18.3 7.1
Disagree 14.3 11.6 13.0 12.3 12.7 18.0 7.7 13.7
Neutral 53.1 56.3 32.5 65.1 46.5 45.9 66.9 52.9
Agree 20.4 21.4 41.6 15.1 22.5 25.9 4.9 21.1
Strongly agree 4.1 5.4 10.4 4.1 4.2 6.6 2.1 5.3
Observations 49 112 77 146 71 305 142 907
Mean 3.0 3.1 3.4 3.0 2.9 3.1 2.6 3.0
P value† 0.878 0.235 <0.001 0.743 0.429 0.009 <0.001 0.205
P values represent t tests of means equal to neutral (3).

It is worth noting that the orientation toward basic versus applied research varied from a high of 75% basic research among biological scientists to 74% applied research among social scientists. However, significant variation also arises within field areas (e.g., crop scientists and plant geneticists within plant sciences), so for purposes of brevity we do not here explore deeply the role of research orientation on their attitudes.

Table 1 shows the overwhelming and statistically significant support of scientists for the value of open source articles and inventions to scientific success across disciplines. On a Likkert scale of 1 to 5, with 4 and 5 being agree and strongly agree, and 1 and 2 being strongly disagree and agree, respectively, 71% of the respondents chose categories 4 or 5 as compared to 5% choosing 1 or 2, a ratio of better than 14:1 favoring open access/sourcing. Plant scientists were the strongest supporters, with a ratio of 77 to 3%, animal scientists were near the average, while agricultural engineers were the weakest supporters, but still with a ratio of 62 to 8%.

Availability of open access journals is also widely reported across these fields, as shown in Table 2. Overall, about 66% of the respondents agreed or strongly agreed that open access journals are readily available in their fields, with biologists and plant scientists at the higher end of that spectrum, with 79 and 72% agreeing and only 5 and 7% disagreeing, respectively, with that statement. Again, animal scientists were close to the sample average with 68% agreeing. At the lower end, 57% of agricultural engineers and 48% of social scientists agreed that open access journals are readily available, but still only 13 and 21%, respectively, disagreed. While these results reflect some diversity across fields, they again show that most faculty in colleges of agricultural and life scientists view open access journals as readily available.

Table 3 reports on the open source availability of inventions, such as seeds, reagents, enzymes, algorithms, machines, and technologies. In this instance, only among biological science faculty was there majority agreement that such open source inventions were available. Plant and animal scientists were next highest at 32%, with more reporting favorable open source availability than not. Social scientists were the only group to have a statistically significant effect on the “disagree” responses (24%), but two-thirds of them were neutral. This question on open source invention availability reveals the discord between what faculty favor with respect to scientific inquiry—an open access/source environment that allows them to pursue discovery and explore curiosity—with what they are experiencing (Walsh et al., 2007), which is less favorable. The higher rate of reported access to open access/source inventions by biological scientists is consistent with their more basic science research orientation reported above.

Research Choice Criteria and Commercialization Attitudes and Activities

Faculty respondents’ strong support for open science is also evident in their responses to attitudinal questions that asked them to rate their criteria for scientific problem choice (Fig. 1). We elicited Likkert scores ranging from 1 to 5, from very unimportant to very important, such that a higher average score reflects a higher priority. The top scores were 4.32 and 4.12 for “enjoy doing this kind of research” and “scientific curiosity” as compared to the bottom scores of between 1.44 and 1.95 on criteria related to potential to patent, commercialization interests of private firms, and potential to market the final product (Fig. 1). Similar surveys in 1995 and 2005 included these same research criteria questions, and across the three decades, attitudinal preferences of faculty respondents have remained remarkably stable, with the same questions scoring at the top and bottom of the rankings, with nearly identical Likkert scores. These results suggest that at least in US LGUs, the joy and curiosity associated with scientific discovery remain critical criteria guiding faculty research choices.

Fig. 1.
Fig. 1.

Mean scores for importance attributed by respondents to selected criteria for problem choice, US land-grant agricultural scientists, 2015. Mean scores range from 1 (not very important) to 5 (very important).


The attitudinal data in Fig. 1 align with the low levels of faculty participation in patenting, and—as we show next—their even lower levels of reliance on direct revenues earned from commercialization activities. We measured the prevalence of four different types of faculty commercialization activity for 2011 to 2015. Specifically, 14% of respondents said they had made an invention disclosure in the previous 5 yr, and almost an identical proportion, 13%, reported making a patent application. About 8% had a patent issued, and 5% reported having a patent licensed. These participation rates in invention disclosures, patenting, and licensing were slightly but not significantly lower than the rates reported in a similar survey in 2005 (Goldberger et al., 2005).

The average university researcher in our sample reported $200,000 in annual laboratory revenues over the previous 5 yr, mostly derived from federal granting agencies. In contrast, across the sample, average annual patent royalty incomes in 2015 amounted to $2,729, and to only $1,270 when we omit a single outlier of $1.5 million. Across the sample, patent revenues account for about 1% of total laboratory revenues. Plant scientists have the maximum share at 3%, with no other field reaching 1%. (It should be noted that some licensing revenues are returned to universities outside of the traditional patent system. Our data may not fully capture such royalties, although they are unlikely to represent a significant portion of total licensing revenue for LGUs.) Additionally, in the entire sample, less than 1% of respondents reported having 10% or more of their laboratory budget covered by patenting and licensing revenues, and only 3 of the more than 900 respondents had more than 50% covered. Thirty-five years after the Bayh–Dole Act, and 20 years after most LGUs began promoting commercialization of research outputs across campus, we see minimal levels of reliance on licensing and patenting revenues to support faculty research enterprises. And it is a rare event to find respondents whose commercialization revenues are generating a substantive share of their laboratory budgets.

Finally, an important distinction can be made between faculty participation in commercialization activities, especially those associated with IPR creation through patents and licenses, and what a recent survey article (Perkmann et al., 2013) called “academic engagement” with commercial entities. By that, they refer to “contract research, consulting, and informal relationships for university–industry knowledge.” This form of university faculty collaboration with the private sector predates the IPR push of the past 35 years (especially at US LGUs) and continues to be a significant part of faculty activity. The same holds true in our LGU survey data, where, for example, about 9% of faculty research funding comes directly from private industry and another 5% from commodity organizations, which when combined equal seven to eight times the share of licensing and patenting revenue. These levels of reliance have held relatively steady over recent decades and appear to not depend on patenting agreements. Indeed, much of the support from commodity organizations promotes an open science rather than an IPR model of research and development.

Summary and Where We Go from Here

Support for open scientific sharing of ideas and innovations remains a dominant value among agricultural and life science faculty in US LGUs. Participation in and direct revenues derived from commercialization activities are low and almost never play a vital part in funding faculty laboratories. Land-grant university faculty research priorities continue—from what they report in recent (and prior surveys)—to be guided by the joy of discovery and scientific curiosity and funded primarily by sources of support other than commercialization efforts. It does not appear that the vast majority of agricultural and life science faculty even participate in or rely on university initiatives to promote patents and other forms of “privatizing” information and inventions from their fields of research. And from the evidence given above, open source inventions are not as available as scientists would apparently want them to be.

After 35 years of university attention to commercializing faculty research via IPRs, it may be time to reassess the enterprise, especially at US land-grant institutions. It is clear that at least agricultural and life science faculty in those universities predominantly favor an open scientific environment and may not benefit much from a partially closed one. An important question worth exploring is whether a clear commitment to the open and free exchange of ideas and innovations could reinvigorate broader public and private sector support for public university research efforts. Land-grant universities in the United States could begin with a dialogue that explores whether a selective commercialization strategy or a fully open access/source approach would best help to advance science and garner stronger societal support for sustained investment in research and development.




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