Where indeed?

AJ Cann has a post up that neatly summarizes the dilemma facing Open Science advocates/enthusiasts, and asks useful questions arising therefrom. In the current competition-focused environment, says Alan:

Open science is an iterated prisoner’s dilemma, which is a messy and unpredictable business. Too unpredictable for most people to try to build a career on. Thinking about strategies which are likely to be successful leads me towards the concept of an open science community rather than unilateral complete openness – a long term multiplayer collaboration. Does such a community already exist? If not, how do we build one?

Having taken a job in biotech, I feel a bit cut off from any such community — industry is notoriously protective of IP and fond of secrecy besides. I feel a bit of a fraud, for instance, taking part in discussions of Open Science issues on FriendFeed (such as the conversation kicked off by Alan’s blog post), knowing that I can’t talk openly about my own work. It doesn’t keep me from shooting off my yap, of course, but it’s a nagging icky feeling — and I keep getting the meta-feeling that it doesn’t have to be this way. Just as secrecy in academia only makes sense within the existing reward structure, secrecy in industry could be at least partly offset by policy decisions that recognize the gains in efficiency that collaboration can bring. I’ve heard multiple times from multiple sources that industry may close itself off from the rest of the world, but within a company, the teamwork ethic is amazing. Clearly, the value of co-operation is recognized. Why shouldn’t that also work for (larger and larger) groups of companies? What you lose by not being the only company to know something from which profit can be made (call it X) is offset by the fact that you might never have learned X without the collaboration — and in the meantime, the world gets X that much faster.
It seems clear, though, that such top-down decisions are more likely to be made in academia, and perhaps the nonprofit sector, than in profit-driven industry — at least until there are enough concrete examples of success to tip the perceived balance of risk. If I’m — if we Open Foo types are — right, it’s actually riskier to compete than to cooperate in the long term. Better to own a share of X sooner than to delay any return on your investment in the hope of owning X outright later. This is especially true when the resources required to try to own X could be used to get you shares in multiple other projects at the same time.
Even then, openness in industry seems to me unlikely to go beyond consortia. Complete openness (open notebook science) precludes patent protection, and in the dog-eat-dog world of business driven by the insatiable demands of disconnected shareholders, I don’t think we are ever going to wean the beancounters off their patents. (We could improve the situation by overhauling the patent process so that teeny incremental changes were not granted full protection, of course; but I digress, and don’t get me started.)
So to return to Alan’s analogy, “multiplayer” means different things in academia (and perhaps the nonprofit sector) and in business. In business, it means defined communities of co-operation; in academia, I see no good reason why it shouldn’t mean everyone (except, perhaps, where the two intersect and academics enter a business-defined collaboration1).
In academia, communities with an open science focus are beginning to form. The best example is still the one which continues to coalesce around Jean-Claude Bradley’s UsefulChem initiative, but it’s no longer the only one as it was just a few years ago. Chemist Mat Todd has funding for an open science project to improve synthesis of the anti-schistosomiasis drug, praziquantel. Biophysicist Steve Koch has a labful of open science enthusiast grad students. And so on; there’s a list of Open Notebook practitioners on wikipedia, and my own feeling is that technical rather than philosophical barriers are keeping quite a few labs from that list. By being discoverable on the public web, all of these labs can do what Jean-Claude is doing: accumulate collaborators and get more work done. Try searching Google for “DNA tweezers kinesin” — the second and fifth hits will hook you up with Steve Koch. “Praziquantel synthesis” — the third hit will take you to the schisto community on The Synaptic Leap, where you’ll soon meet Mat Todd, and the seventh hit will take you to a brief discussion of Mat’s project on the UsefulChem blog. “Antimalarial Ugi” — most of the first ten hits will introduce you to UsefulChem. If you’re doing something that’s in any way related to the work that goes on in these labs, you’re one Google search away from a collaboration.
In business, too, more and more companies are recognizing the benefits of wider sharing. Details of private collaborations are hard to come by, but just try searching for “precompetitive sharing” — even Big Pharma can see that they stand to make net gains from sharing their datasets. For an even better example, check out Sage Bionetworks. I was lucky enough to hear Stephen Friend speak at the Science Commons Symposium a couple of weeks ago, and one of the points he made was that the really big questions in biology require such immense amounts of data that the only way to collect them is to do it in the open. Any impediment at all, be it CC-BY attribution requirements or IP protections, will derail the whole process; the only answer in the end is the public domain.
So, the seeds are there. I think continued crystallization is inevitable, but it’s certainly worthwhile to try to monitor and direct the process — by way of questions like those Alan is asking.

1I don’t buy the argument, by the way, that unless academics work in secret and enable strong patent protection they will never get industry partners. If you invent something from which profit can be made, someone will want to make that profit. If, without outright patent ownership, it’s not enough money to tempt a Roche or an Intel, there will always be smaller, hungrier companies.

3 thoughts on “Where indeed?

  1. I have similar issues with regard to free software and my job at a HUGE corporation. They’re getting more closed and paranoid all the time. But I make money there and there aren’t as many options working only with free stuff.

  2. Being a member of a community (or shoal) is the best protection from predators. Well, maybe the best apart from being able to run/swim/fly faster then your colleagues 😉
    I feel that the growth of Open Access publishing and the now widespread acceptance of open access mandates by funders is surely the model we should look to here. How did that movement get started? How did it grow? What lessons should ONS learn from that?

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