Friday, 4 September 2015

Patent information and reliability: the case of Wikipedia

Is this how we should view prior art
that we find on the internet?
Spotted recently on SSRN is an article by Adam M. Wilson and Gene E. Likens that should be of interest and concern to anyone who has a passion for reliable data and valid patents: it's "Content Volatility of Scientific Topics in Wikipedia: A Cautionary Tale", published in PLoS ONE (a peer-reviewed open access scientific journal published by the Public Library of Science).

You can read the article in full here; its abstract reads like this:
“Wikipedia has quickly become one of the most frequently accessed encyclopedic references, despite the ease with which content can be changed and the potential for ‘edit wars’ surrounding controversial topics. Little is known about how this potential for controversy affects the accuracy and stability of information on scientific topics, especially those with associated political controversy. Here we present an analysis of the Wikipedia edit histories for seven scientific articles and show that topics we consider politically but not scientifically “controversial” (such as evolution and global warming) experience more frequent edits with more words changed per day than pages we consider “noncontroversial” (such as the standard model in physics or heliocentrism). For example, over the period we analyzed, the global warming page was edited on average (geometric mean ±SD) 1.9±2.7 times resulting in 110.9±10.3 words changed per day, while the standard model in physics was only edited 0.2±1.4 times resulting in 9.4±5.0 words changed per day. 
The high rate of change observed in these pages makes it difficult for experts to monitor accuracy and contribute time-consuming corrections, to the possible detriment of scientific accuracy. As our society turns to Wikipedia as a primary source of scientific information, it is vital we read it critically and with the understanding that the content is dynamic and vulnerable to vandalism and other shenanigans.”
Should this worry us? Yes. Given that materials on the internet, and Wikipedia itself, are used as sources of prior art in patent law, the ephemeral and potentially unreliable content of online postings may be the critical factor that enables a granted patent to be invalidated.

This is not a new problem, as can be gleaned from Michael White's Patent Librarian's Notebook posts back in 2009 and 2010 here and here and from the European Patent Office's decision T 1134/06 (Internet Citations), subsequently revisited on various occasions (there's a good EPLAW  blogpost on the subject late last year here).  But the issue has until now been seen as simply a matter of validity of an individual patent in terms of its ability to control manufacture, products and processes. The value of a patent as a securitised asset in the hands of a lender, and the potential impact of unreliable or uncertain prior art, does not yet seem to have generated its own literature or mode of operation. Maybe it should start doing so soon.

1 comment:

  1. What Wikipedia needs, obviously, is more women contributors: