Governments could come under pressure to make information on biological resources openly available, following a decision approved at last week's conference of parties (COP) to the Convention on Biological Diversity in Brazil.
According to its decision, the COP "invites parties and other governments, as appropriate, to provide free and open access to all past, present, and future public-good research results, assessments, maps and databases on biodiversity, in accordance with national and international legislation".
The language is vague, but according to Donat Agosti, a research associate at the American Museum of Natural History and the Swiss Naturmuseum, "This is breakthrough."
"It means we can talk to our governments and argue for open access to this body of information, referring to this COP decision," he says. "But nothing will happen unless pressure and demand can be built up to implement it."
Agosti has long pointed to the irony that researchers in developing countries — where most biodiversity is found — cannot access information about their nations' species (see Copyrighting species descriptions is 'biopiracy').
He is concerned that if information is not made available, governments could consider it a commodity they can sell. He adds that efforts to conserve the planet's biodiversity depend on free and open access to information about it.
Dave Roberts of the UK's Natural History Museum in London also welcomes the COP decision, but says it is hard to see how influential it will be until parties to the biodiversity convention begin implementing it.
Most published information is owned by commercial organisations and is restricted via copyright, "and is therefore not likely to be made available free," he told SciDev.Net.
Roberts says that as well as giving the public access to the information, some degree of standardisation between records is also needed. "Otherwise the ultimate objective, of a useable resource, will be not be realised," he says.
Although it made some headway on access to information, the COP failed to agree on rules governing access to biological resources themselves, and how benefits arising from their use should be shared.
These issues were among the most controversial items on the agenda at the Brazil meeting, and no consensus could be reached (see Slow progress at talks on access to biodiversity).
A group of 'megadiverse' developing nations — including Brazil, China, Congo, India and Indonesia — wanted to set a deadline of 2008 for a final decision. But after pressure from industrialised nations, the deadline was extended until 2010.
The delegates approved a proposal to continue using a draft regime on access to biological resources and benefit sharing as a basis for future discussions, even though this is set almost entirely in parentheses, indicating a lack of consensus.Link to draft regime on access and benefit-sharing