The bottom line, and an idea.

Relatively new addition to the blogroll Glyn Moody points out the bottom line in all “intellectual property” issues: it’s not property, and anyone who tells you otherwise is lying for profit:

A very interesting transcript of a conversation between Reuters and Warner Music Chief Executive Edgar Bronfman. The latter […] is revealed for what he is when he slips in the Big IP Lie:

Intellectual property is intellectual property, whether it’s in the form of an avatar or a song or any such thing. These are the creations of someone’s mind, and it’s property as real as real estate.

No, Ed, no, no, no. What you call “intellectual property” is really an intellectual monopoly: it is a limited privilege, granted by the state, to encourage creativity. It is not property, however much you might like to claim it implicity. It is a bargain, with a quid pro quo: it has to allow reasonable “fair use”, and it has to be given up after a reasonable time. You and your industry seem to have forgotten both aspects.

(Quite a lot elided there, so do read the whole post.)
From there to an idea: Glyn pointed to Moving To Freedom, where I found Scott pointing back to Glyn’s The Great Software Schism and sideways to his own thoughts on Free vs Open Source. I had a section on this in my “open access” essay for 3QD, but I cut it out in the interest of brevity, because the open source section was just there for background and I assumed most people reading 3QD would be at least somewhat familiar with it. It went like this:

Richard Stallman started the GNU Project in 1983/4 as a reaction against the rising influence of proprietary software, and a year or so later founded the Free Software Foundation, which “is dedicated to promoting computer users’ rights to use, study, copy, modify, and redistribute computer programs.”  What Stallman and the FSF mean by “free software” is famously summed up by the dictum, “free as in speech, not free as in beer”; more precisely, they mean “free” as in:

  • The freedom to run the program, for any purpose
  • The freedom to study how the program works, and adapt it to your needs
  • The freedom to redistribute copies
  • The freedom to improve the program and release your improvements to the public

Access to the source code is a precondition for these freedoms, and many advocates prefer that the “four fundamental freedoms” also be combined with some form of copyleft (basically a licence which explicitly disallows use of the original resource in any way that restricts the four freedoms for anyone else).

About a decade later the Open Source Initiative appeared, offering itself as a “more pragmatic” approach to free software.  The two definitions are pretty similar, though the OSI version allows some licencing that the FSF considers too restrictive of end users.  A common view of these two groups is that Open Source is a development methodology, whereas Free Software is a social movement.  (You can, if you care to really get into it, read Stallman on why free is better than open source and the OSI on why the term “free” is too ambiguous.  Oy.  Wikipedia is good on all of this if you want more details: open source, open source software, free software.)

So anyway, if you’re not familiar with the “schism”, there’s some background. I’ve argued that the same sort of openness as brought to mind by Free/Open Source Software is vital for the future of science, and since a movement needs a name I’ve tentatively proposed Open Science as the banner under which open access, open data, open standards, open licensing and open source might assemble to their greatest mutual benefit. As it happens though, one of the earliest movements towards what I am calling “open” science was called the Free Science Campaign, run by Stefano Ghirlanda. (The page is offline now. I ran across it while doing my graduate studies, and it is an enduring regret that I never signed up.)
Here’s the idea, then, for all that it opens up an awful can of worms: should we be calling the campaign to free up scientific information (text, data and software) “Free Science”, for the same reasons Stallman insists on “Free Software”?
It would be rather too much to just toss that out there, so here’s my view. While I have great sympathy with Stallman’s arguments in favour of Free, and am personally committed to do as much of my science completely in the open as I can, I know my tribe. Scientists are a cynical, self-interested lot. For instance, I was scoffed at for recommending BioRoot to colleagues — the whole idea of sharing tends to be seen as naive, asking to be taken advantage of. It’s been my experience that the first response of most scientists to any “open” scheme (like BioRoot, or Open Notebook Science) is not “how cool!” but “what about bad actors? how will you keep from being robbed?”. (Which says something about what the culture of science does to a person, but I digress.) To my mind, this largely explains why BioRoot hasn’t taken off as I would have hoped/expected, and is something of which to be wary. I am concerned that “Free Science”, particularly if explicitly connected with “idealistic” Stallman (as contrasted with the “pragmatic” OSI), might meet with a chorus of sneers from the people who need it most. So for now, I think we should stick with “Open Science”.

4 thoughts on “The bottom line, and an idea.

  1. Hi, Bill. While not especially familiar with the scientific community, I suspect some things are the same all over. I share your concerns about being perceived as naively idealistic, especially since I spent many years practicing being cynical and/or pragmatic. But I’m hoping I can get over that.
    RMS can be a tough leader to follow, also, since he draws so much controversy. However, when I read his work or listen to him speak, he sounds so reasonable and consistent. Very inspiring. Is that how it is with cult leaders? 🙂 The more I read and write about the free software movement, the more I don’t feel like I have anything to apologize over by believing in its ideals. Don’t let the sneerers get you down. The koolaid tastes great! Have a cup!
    (That said, “Open Science” doesn’t sound bad. To me, it connotes an open sharing of scientific research. I don’t think there is the same issue in science as there is in software where “open source” is a way of distancing the product from the hippie ideals behind it.)

  2. Scott, thanks for commenting. I think you’re right that we dirty free-culture hippies (why yes, that is some tasty Kool-Aid!) are viewed askance pretty much everywhere. The thing is, I doubt that most people realize quite how cut-throat the scientific “community” really is.
    I’ve taken to writing the phrase that way — scientific “community” — for a reason! Where you might expect sharing, you find instead a rather desperate “look out for number one” mentality. In that very “community” in which you might hope for some sense of dedication to something greater than the sum of its parts, you find instead a grubbing materialism. If the latter is based as much on kudos as cash, so much the worse, since that seems to lead not to a focus on the greater good but to inflamed egos and their familiar unpleasant consequences.
    I’m a bit jaded at the moment though, for reasons I won’t get into. If I thought the above screed was all there was to the sociology of science, I wouldn’t ever bother writing or thinking about Open Science. So it’s not as bad as I make out.
    And all of that aside, I agree with you also on the connotation of “open” — it is rather different from “open source”, much closer to “free” in the RMS sense. I was just thinking out loud in this entry. The phrase “Open Science” seems to have got a foothold, and if it’s not perfect it will certainly do for a “brand” to describe the kind of free-culture RMS/Lessig approach to science that I am interested in.

  3. In the short term, openness perhaps does not fit with the “look out for number one” mentality.
    In the longer term – the “look out for number one” mentality will not fit with openness.
    The reasons for Open Science are many, and compelling. Competition makes no sense in a day when the most dramatic advances – by far – of science are achieved through open, global collaboration (such as mapping of the human genome).

  4. The reasons for Open Science are many, and compelling. Competition makes no sense in a day when the most dramatic advances – by far – of science are achieved through open, global collaboration (such as mapping of the human genome).
    I think you are absolutely right, and co-operative models of research will win out because they are simply more efficient. The question is how to speed the process up? I’m trying to think of ways to present Open Science to researchers as simply being in their best interests. As I said, I know my tribe: ethical arguments about openness will get nowhere against “what if someone scoops me?”.
    Open Access is an easy sell in that regard, since we’re talking about something already published, with nothing to lose and much to gain.
    Open Data is harder, because a lot of people leave stuff out of their papers deliberately, either to confound competitors or because the raw data doesn’t look quite as good as the massaged version in the paper. (As open notebooks become more common, this problem should fade, because everyone knows what real data looks like, so let’s just stop lying in print, hmm?)
    Open Notebooks are the hardest sell of all, because it’s simply true that there are bad actors in the scientific “community”. If you’re an early adopter, an Open Notebook will probably result in some of your ideas being filched. It’s all very well to say “I have the timestamped blog post”, but proving that Sneaky McStealsalot didn’t have the same idea at the same time is sometimes going to be impossible. To this, for now, all I can say is:
    *I have ideas like a tree has leaves, and so do most scientists I know. Are you really so afraid of losing one or two?
    *As openness becomes the norm, bad actors will get easier and easier to spot, and what Peter Suber calls the French Chef solution will come into play — community mores will raise the cost of free-riding/stealing high enough that it will become no more than a background problem. After all, open exchange of information makes it much easier to establish a reputation/gift economy.

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