The role of universities in the "open content" world


Universities are still the major place in society where, worldwide, millions of people create, process, use, adapt and distribute knowledge, in various forms and types. In their mission statements universities often underline their public role in terms of the responsibility for active knowledge sharing between academics and the dissemination of knowledge to the society in general. The ‘public’ role of the university can also be connected to its being a kind of “refuge” for research and education (K.U.Leuven speaks about vrijplaats) which obviously refers to its particular (academic) freedom. In this contribution, however, public refers to the open character of generated knowledge and technology, though one could argue that current policies at the K.U.Leuven also limit academic freedom and the notion of public that is implied.

Our aim is to focus on the tension between the overall ambition of an increased number of universities for active knowledge sharing and the fact that their concrete policy practices rather discourage knowledge sharing, even encourage knowledge privatization. This tension will be illustrated by focusing on some concrete policy practices of the K.U.Leuven. More in particular we will clarify that the performance indicators that are formulated by the K.U.Leuven encourages researchers to generate knowledge and technology only under proprietary licenses, that is, licensed under exclusive legal right of the copyright holder. In opposition to this, we will elaborate in the second part of our contribution on several methods to publish knowledge and technology under open licenses and open standards. These methods are not valorized and, as a result, discouraged by current policy practices at the K.U.Leuven also limit academic freedom and the notion of public that is implied.

Performance IndicatorsEdit

In order for an organization to valorize its performance, the K.U.Leuven underlines that performance indicators are required. These indicators are formulated for research, academic service, education, internationalization, … etc. We focus here on the first two elements: research and academic service (wetenschappelijke dienstverlening). The complete mission statement (only in Dutch) [1] summarizes Key performance indicators (KPI) that are used to monitor the input, process and result.

K.U.Leuven performance indicators for researchEdit

KPI for research
Number of publications (mostly closed)
Impact factor for each publication
Number of citations

It is important to underline that the K.U.Leuven, by taking the number of published papers together with their impact factor and number of citations as indicators for the valorization of research performance, imposes a policy that discourages active knowledge sharing. Researchers are stimulated to distribute their work in journals that come with high impact factors, yet proprietary license. Open knowledge sharing through open software, open content or the development of open standards simply do not count (no valorization) as publications. Most Open access journals, being only recently set up, are hardly valorized as they come with a very low impact (taking the citations of the last two to five years into account). As a consequence, these journals do not attract the best articles and there the viscous circle starts. In other words, the use of the K.U.Leuven performance indicators discourages people to openly exchange knowledge and technology and cultivates its privatization. This might sound strange in the context of a publication policy.

K.U.Leuven performance indicators for academic service (wetenschappelijke dienstverlening)Edit

KPI for academic service
Number of generated patents
Number of generated spin-offs
Industrial revenue (in euros)

Here again, we want to underline that, taking the number of generated patents or spin-offs as performance indicators, the K.U.Leuven discourages active knowledge sharing and supports knowledge privatization. Here as well, in view of the expectation to maximize patenting opportunities, researchers are stimulated to generate knowledge and technology under proprietary licenses. In this context, K.U.Leuven has set up a technology transfer office (TTO), the K.U.Leuven Research & Development (LRD) that supports researchers in their interaction with industry and society (covering contract and collaborative research, patenting and licensing and spin-off creation) and in the valorization of their research results. The third indicator, industrial revenue, discourages researchers to use (mainly free) open source software as they are rewarded for spending a lot of money (for example on software licenses).

Open licenses and open standardsEdit

In this short exploration of active knowledge sharing and open knowledge construction, we make a distinction between open software, open content, open access and open standards.

Open software licensesEdit

In contrast to proprietary software licenses that imply that certain rights regarding the software - inspection of code, modification and distribution - are reserved by the software publisher, open software licenses make software free for inspection of its code, modification, and distribution. These initiatives have the intention to maximise the distribution of knowledge that is collected in the software code. We will focus here on three distinct types of software licenses:

  1. GNU General Public License (GPL)
  2. Berkeley Software Distribution (BSD) license
  3. GNU Lesser General Public License (LGPL)

Roughly speaking, the GPL forces users to release all their changes to GPLed software, including the software they added "externally". The BSD does not impose any release of changes, but does not allow you to call the software your own. The LGPL is somewhere in between: it expects release of improvements, but allows linking with the software without the obligation to release it.

GNU General Public License (GPL): Free speech as a moral dutyEdit

Richard Matthew Stallman
Richard Stallman at the University of Pittsburgh 2010
BornNew York City, New York, United States
OccupationPresident of the Free Software Foundation
Known forFree software movement, GNU, Emacs

Richard Matthew Stallman was the first important American 'software freedom activist. In September 1983, he launched the GNU Project [2] to create a free Unix-like operating system, and has been the project's lead architect and organizer. With the launch of the GNU Project, he initiated the free software movement; in October 1985 he founded the Free Software Foundation.

Stallman pioneered the concept of copyleft and he is the main author of several copyleft licenses including the GNU General Public License, the most widely used free software license.[3]

The "reversed 'c' in a full circle" is the copyleft symbol. It is the copyright symbol mirrored. Unlike the copyright symbol, it has no legal meaning.

Copyleft is a play on the word copyright to describe the practice of using copyright law to offer the right to distribute copies and modified versions of a work and requiring that the same rights be preserved in modified versions of the work. In other words, copyleft is a general method for making a program (or other work) free, and requiring all modified and extended versions of the program to be free as well.[4]

Copyleft licenses are sometimes referred to as "viral licenses" because any works derived from a copyleft work must themselves be copyleft when distributed (and thus they exhibit a viral phenomenon). The term 'General Public Virus', or 'GNU Public Virus' (GPV), has a long history on the Internet, dating back to shortly after the GPL was first conceived.[5][6][7]

Stallman argues that software users should have the freedom to share with their neighbour and to be able to study and make changes to the software that they use. He maintains that attempts by proprietary software vendors to prohibit these acts are antisocial and unethical. The phrase "software wants to be free" is often incorrectly attributed to him, and Stallman argues that this is a misstatement of his philosophy.[8] He argues that freedom is vital for the sake of users and society as a moral value, and not merely for pragmatic reasons such as possibly developing technically superior software.

Berkeley Software Distribution (BSD) license: Free speech as a pragmatic choiceEdit

BSD licenses are a family of permissive free software licenses. The original license was used for the Berkeley Software Distribution (BSD), a Unix-like operating system after which it is named. The licenses have fewer restrictions on distribution compared to other free software licenses such as the GNU General Public License or even the default restrictions provided by copyright, putting them relatively closer to the public domain.

In distinction to viral license, BSD licenses are open source, that is, they allow inspection of source code in order to improve unlimited redistribution. Yet, there is no obligation of distribution under copyleft terms. One of the initial BSD licenses is shown below.

New BSD License
Original author(s)Regents of the University of California
CopyrightPublic Domain
Release date1999-07-22 [9]
OSI approvedYes
GPL compatibleYes

Copyright (c) <year>, <copyright holder>
All rights reserved.

Redistribution and use in source and binary forms, with or without
modification, are permitted provided that the following conditions are met:
    * Redistributions of source code must retain the above copyright
      notice, this list of conditions and the following disclaimer.
    * Redistributions in binary form must reproduce the above copyright
      notice, this list of conditions and the following disclaimer in the
      documentation and/or other materials provided with the distribution.
    * Neither the name of the <organization> nor the
      names of its contributors may be used to endorse or promote products
      derived from this software without specific prior written permission.


The permissive nature of the BSD license allows companies to distribute derived products as proprietary software without exposing source code and sometimes intellectual property to competitors. Searching for strings containing "University of California, Berkeley" in the documentation of products, in the static data sections of binaries and ROMs, or as part of other information about a software program, will often show BSD code has been used. This permissiveness also makes BSD code suitable for use in open source products, and the license is compatible with many other open source licenses. The permissive nature of the BSD license also allows derivative works of code released originally under the BSD license to become less permissive with time.

GNU Lesser General Public License (LGPL) : A compromise between GPL and BSDEdit

GNU Lesser General Public License
Original author(s)Free Software Foundation
CopyrightFree Software Foundation, Inc.
GPL compatibleYes

The GNU Lesser General Public License (formerly the GNU Library General Public License) or LGPL is a free software license published by the Free Software Foundation (FSF). It was designed as a compromise between the strong-copyleft GPL and permissive licenses such as the BSD licenses. The GNU Library General Public License (as the LGPL was originally named) was published in 1991, and was the version number 2 for parity with GPL version 2. The LGPL was revised in minor ways in the 2.1 point release, published in 1999, when it was renamed the GNU Lesser General Public License to reflect the FSF's position that not all libraries should use it.

The LGPL places copyleft restrictions on the program itself but does not apply these restrictions to other software that merely links with the program. There are, however, certain other restrictions on this software.

The LGPL is primarily used for computer science software libraries, although it is also used by some stand-alone applications, most notably Mozilla and and sometimes media as well.

Open content licensesEdit

Open content involves any kind of creative work, or content, published under an open content license (OPL) that explicitly allows copying and/or modification of the information by anyone. Hence, it includes the right to modify the work. Open content therefore is an alternative paradigm to the use of copyright that ultimately creates a monopoly over the knowledge. One of the largest open content project is Wikipedia. It is interesting to notice that the K.U.Leuven runs a WikiServer that provides WikiSpace for educational purposes. Yet, the open character is lost because one needs to log in using the Toledo Blackboard (a digital learning platform) in order to get access.

Open access licensesEdit

Open access (OA) refers to unrestricted online access to (mainly) peer-reviewed scholarly journal articles. While in scholarly publishing it is common to keep an article's content intact and to associate it with a fixed author, open access (publishing) mostly offers access to the material and defines a set of use (or re-use) rights, included in Creative Commons Licenses. These Licenses replace the model of all rights reserved of copyright with the more flexible model of some rights reserved. In other words, through a Creative Commons License creators communicate which rights they reserve and which rights they waive for the benefit of recipients or other creators (in order to make the material open content). Different models for financing OA journals exist. Some charge publication fees (paid by authors or by their funding agencies or employers) and some do not. Some of the no-fee journals have institutional subsidies , where others do not.

An example of open access (publishing) is Open CourseWare (OCW). This is a collection of high quality course materials in a virtual learning environment created by universities (Berkeley, MIT, Yale, Notre Dame, Michigan, TU_Delft, Stanford, …) and shared freely with the world via the internet. In addition to that, there are several open access journals. We mentioned earlier that the problem with this type of journals is that their impact factor, based on the number of citations to articles published during the two to five preceding years, is initially very low. However, there are some well-known examples of open access journals, which are mainly to be found in the medical sciences, such as: BioMed Central (BMC), MedKnow Publications, [ National Institute of Health Public Access (NIH)] and Public Library of science (PloS). Many open access academic publication platforms (with participation of K.U.Leuven academics) can be found within a wide variety of scientific fields: the field of Software Engineering for Robotics, the BioMedical and Scientific field, chemistry, Molecular Imaging, etc.

Open standardsEdit

Open standards are certain specifications of technologies that are publicly available. They are meant to facilitate interoperability and data exchange among different products or services and are intended for widespread adoption. Some examples of open standards are: Open Document Format (ODF) used by Open Office, Portable Network Graphics (PNG) images, Portable Document Format (PDF/X) designed by Adobe Systems.

Although current policies actually discourage knowledge sharing, and in fact encourage knowledge privatisation, our short overview of initiatives and methods should clarify that it is possible to ‘open up’ knowledge production and distribution within universities. Perhaps it is important to start validating and supporting these initiatives and methods – as part of the public role of the university, and in order to make real their mission statements.

K.U.Leuven as an "Open" university ?Edit

Current open projects at K.U.LeuvenEdit

Open source software projectsEdit

Multiple project in OPTEC: K.U.Leuven Center of Excellence: Optimization in Engineering

  • Acado Toolkit - A Toolkit for Automatic Control and Dynamic Optimization (open-source), Boris Houska and Hans Joachim Ferreau (for C++ and Matlab).
  • qpOASES- Parametric Quadratic Programming for MPC (open-source), Hans Joachim Ferreau.
  • lssvmlab- a Least Squares Support Vector Machines toolbox.
  • timeopt - Time Optimal Robot Trajectory Planning (open-source), Diederik Verscheure.
  • glas- Generic Linear Algebra Software (open-source), Karl Meerbergen.
  • rdp- Robust Dynamic Programming (open-source), Moritz Diehl and Jakob Björnberg.
  • liftopt- Nonlinear Optimization (open-source), Jan Albersmeyer.
  • orocos- Smarter control in robotics & automation! (open-source), Herman Bruyninckx and Peter Soetens.
  • SCPCVX - an interface for Sequential Convex Programming Methods (SCP) using the CVX package in Matlab.

The Bioinformatics Research Group

  • Toucan-2 is a workbench for regulatory sequence analysis on metazoan genomes : comparative genomics, detection of significant transcription factor binding sites, and detection of cis-regulatory modules (combinations of binding sites) in sets of coexpressed/coregulated genes.

The VISICS, a part of the Centre for Processing Speech and Images (PSI) within the K.U.Leuven

Open content projectsEdit

Faculty or Arts, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven

  • MultiCampus Open Educational Resources: the case of OER-HE

Department of mechanical engineering: Wikipages designed within a course embedded control systems

Suggestions for improvementEdit

  1. KPI adaptation
  1. Active support of 'open' initiatives
  1. Creation of an 'open' course content platform

Notes and referencesEdit

  1. K.U.Leuven mission statement [], accessed December 6, 2010.
  2. Stallman, Richard (1983-09-27). "Initial GNU announcement". Retrieved 20 November 2008.
  3. Wheeler, David A. (2008-10-03). "Make Your Open Source Software GPL-Compatible. Or Else". (See the list in section 2). Retrieved 20 November 2008.
  4. "What is Copyleft?". Retrieved 2010-08-29.
  5. Vixie, Paul (2006-03-06). "Re: Section 5.2 (IPR encumberance) in TAK rollover requirement draft". IETF Namedroppers mailing list. Archived from the original on 2007-09-27. Retrieved 2007-04-29.
  6. "General Public Virus". Jargon File 2.2.1. 1990-12-15. Retrieved 2007-04-29.
  7. {{Cite journal|url= |title=Reverse-engineering the GNU Public Virus
  8. The Daemon, the GNU and the Penguin by Peter H. Salus. Retrieved 18 February 2005.
  9. "To All Licensees, Distributors of Any Version of BSD". University of California, Berkeley. 1999-07-22. Retrieved 2006-11-15.