On science and selfishness.

Glyn Moody has a nice post up about fraternizing with the enemy in Open Science; you should read the whole thing, but here’s the gist:

One of the things that disappoints me is the lack of understanding of what’s at stake with open source among some of the other open communities. For example, some in the world of open science seem to think it’s OK to work with Microsoft, provided it furthers their own specific agenda. Here’s a case in point:

John Wilbanks, VP of Science for Creative Commons, gave O’Reilly Media an exclusive sneak preview of a joint announcement that they will be making with Microsoft later today at the O’Reilly Emerging Technology Conference. […] Microsoft will be releasing, under an open source license, Word plugins that will allow scientists to mark up their papers with scientific entities directly.

That might sound fine – after all, the plugins are open source, right? But no. Here’s the problem:

Wilbanks said that Word is, in his experience, the dominant publishing system used in the life sciences [and] probably the place that most people prepare drafts. “almost everything I see when I have to peer review is in a .doc format.”

In other words, he doesn’t see any problem with perpetuating Microsoft’s stranglehold on word processing. But it has consistently abused that monopoly […]
Working with Microsoft on open source plugins might seem innocent enough, but it’s really just entrenching Microsoft’s power yet further in the scientific community […]
It would have been far better to work with OpenOffice.org to produce similar plugins, making the free office suite even more attractive, and thus giving scientists yet another reason to go truly open, with all the attendant benefits, rather than making do with a hobbled, faux-openness, as here.

Let me say upfront that I mostly agree with Glyn here. Scientists should be at the forefront of abandoning closed for Open wherever possible, because in the long term Open strategies offer efficiencies of operation and scale that closed, proprietary solutions simply cannot match.
Having said that — and most expressly without wishing to put words into John Wilbanks’ mouth — my response to Glyn’s criticism is that I think he (Glyn) is seriously underestimating the selfish nature of most scientists. Or if you want to be charitable, the intense pressure under which they have to function. Let me unpack that:
Glyn talks about making Open Office more attractive and providing incentives for scientists to use Open solutions, but what he may not realize is that incentives mostly don’t work in that tribe. Scientists will do nothing that doesn’t immediately and obviously contribute to publications, unless forced to do so. Witness the utter failure of Open Access recommendations, suggestions and pleas vs the success of OA mandates. These are people who ignore carrots; you need a stick, and a big one.
For instance: I use Open Office in preference to Word because I’m willing to put up with a short learning curve and a few inconveniences, having (as they say here in the US) drunk the Open Kool-Aid. But I’m something of an exception. Faced with a single difficulty, one single function that doesn’t work exactly like it did in Word, the vast majority of researchers will throw a tantrum and give up on the new application. After all, the Department pays the Word license, so it’s there to be used, so who cares about monopolies and stifling free culture and all that hippy kum-ba-yah crap when I’ve got a paper to write that will make me the most famous and important scientist in all the world?
The last part is a (slight) exaggeration, but the tantrum/quit part is not. Researchers have their set ways of doing things, and they are very, very resistant to change — I think this might be partly due to the kind of personality that ends up in research, but it’s also a response to the pressure to produce. In science, only one kind of productivity counts — that is, keeps you in a job, brings in funding, wins your peers’ respect — and that’s published papers. The resulting pressure makes whatever leads to published papers urgent and limits everything else to — at best — important; and urgent trumps important every time. Remember the old story about the guy struggling to cut down a tree with a blunt saw? To suggestions that his work would go faster if he sharpened the saw, he replies that he doesn’t have time to sit around sharpening tools, he’s got a tree to cut down!
I said above that scientists should move from closed to Open wherever possible because of long term advantages. I think that’s true, but like the guy with the saw, scientists are caught up in short-term thinking. Put the case to most of them, and they’ll agree about the advantages of Open over closed — for instance, I’ve yet to meet anyone who disagreed on principle that Open Access could dramatically improve the efficiency of knowledge dissemination, that is, the efficiency of the entire scientific endeavour. I’ve also yet to meet more than a handful of people willing to commit to sending their own papers only to OA journals, or even to avoiding journals that won’t let them self-archive! “I have a job to keep”, they say, “I’m not going to sacrifice my livelihood to the greater good”; or “that’s great, but first I need to get this grant funded”; or my personal favourite, “once I have tenure I’ll start doing all that good stuff”. (Sure you will. But I digress.)
So to return to the question at hand: it’s a fine thing to suggest that scientists should use Open Office, but I flat-out guarantee you that they never will unless somehow their funding comes to depend on it. Word is familiar and convenient; none of the advantages of Free/Open Source software are sufficiently important to overcome the urgency with which this paper or that grant has to be written up and sent.
It’s also a great idea to get researchers to start thinking about, and using, markup and metadata and all that chewy Semantic Web goodness, but again I guarantee 100% failure unless you fit it into their existing workflow and habits. If you build your plugins for Open Office, that won’t be another reason to use the Free application, it will be another reason to reject semantic markup: “oh yeah, the semantic web is a great idea, yeah I’d support it but there’s no Word plugin so I’d have to install Open Office and I just don’t have time to deal with that…”.
When it comes to scientists, you don’t just have to hand them a sharper saw, you have to force them to stop sawing long enough to change to the new tool. All they know is that the damn tree has to come down on time and they will be in terrible trouble (/fail to be recognized for their genius) if it doesn’t.

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