"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Open science, but not just yet

Change Threatens Existing Adaptations

The reasons people (or creatures) oppose relatively massive change have to do with their relatively smaller adaptations to prior conditions. This applies whether the massive change is desirable or not. So it is indeed the case that there is plenty of opposition to open science. The linked example shows the obvious one: our science reviewing mechanisms are tied to for-profit organizations which obtain their funding by charging fees for access to the reviewed materials. With our new publication technologies, they end up enforcing an artificial scarcity. The costs originally imposed by ink and paper and glue are now imposed by lawyers. (Of course, this makes the lawyers happy, though the ink and paper people are suffering. This is the modern "service economy" at work; the lawyers provide the "service" of maintaining the artificial scarcity.)

The argument then is "What, no fees? Then no journals! And then no peer review!" The idea that we would find other ways to do peer review escapes people. I am reminded of the time many years ago I, perhaps a bit naively, argued against car culture on usenet. I got the answer "Don't be ridiculous. If I didn't have a car, how would I get to my job?" This was a real headscratcher for me, since it was exactly the point I was making that the environment should be set up so that most people don't need a car to get to work! The reason most people have cars is because we have adjusted to a cheap-energy low-cooperation world where not having a car is a severe disadvantage. Redesigning the situation is posited as a threat to "freedom", when in fact no freedom was exercised in the original design.

Proprietary Data in the Public Sector

This sort of resistance to change arises in ways that might not be obvious to those proposing the change. Consider that open science is a threat to established competitive positions within science. The grant agencies have been prevailed upon by the ideology of competition to make grants scarce. Unfortunately, as in any situation where the purchaser (in this case the grant agency) and the beneficiary (in this case the future users of scientific knowledge) are not the same, this leads to distortions.

Consider that some sorts of data are very expensive to collect. The organization collecting the data may be willing to perform this service at a loss, with the expectation that the resulting information will be treated as proprietary. Then, that organization can be confident of a seat at the table on all the subsequent work based on that data. To suddenly be forced to release the data releases that anticipated monopoly without compensation. The institutions with the observational data are motivated to oppose the openness.

It can be seen as a bait-and-switch of the same sort that corporate interests legitimately object to. Stability of market conditions reduces costs; a readjustment of market rules to a more sensible configuration punishes those who most successfully adapted to the old configuratiuon.

The Shallow Way of Making Government More Like Business

This reveals a deeper problem than closed vs open. Public sector activities in the US are often organized on competitive lines. I understand that even the armed services are in competition with each other for limited funds. This all seems to be based on a very superficial idea that public sector activities should be "more like business". And of course, businesses adapt to distorted marketplaces as well, protect them vociferously to the public detriment (see copyright law, again, for numerous plain examples) and often act to create them.

The lesson of the marketplace is not "competition" itself, or at l;east shouldn't be. It is closed loop feedback. The actions and actors contributing most to the desired result should be reinforced; those leading in other directions should be negatively reinforced. There are lots of ways to implement this besides competitive bidding on contracts that, the closer they are to research, the less likely that they can actually be fulfilled in fact.

A Time to Every Purpose

It's clear that an information commons is not enough. There must be a transition to systems or customs that reinforce contributions to that commons. People creating useful information need to be able to make a good living doing that.

The dependence on the scarcity of ink and paper led to specific cultural formulations in the past that worked and made sense, but even then, the hoarding of data was encouraged by a misguided effort at competitive bidding in allocation of resources in pure science. All this artificial scarcity is enforced by attachments to buggy whip technologies reinforced by lawyers, people in business suits, and lawsuits. It's likely that a different organization would work better. It is possible that a sudden declaration of public access to publicly funded information will knock enough props from under the existing system that a new system will emerge (hopefully with a much richer structure of scientific review, actually).

But there's always a risk, in disruptive times, of too much disruption. There is a baby in among the bathwater.

Transitions are complex, even if the goal is simplicity. Resistance has causes rooted in the adaptation to the obsolescent organizational schemes. In the case of science, I favor a radical reorganization and opening of the publication schemes. But I also note how this is conflated with invasion of privacy and with restriction of resources in our addled public discourse. In a time when American public policy debate is reduced to a battle between slow death on one hand and suicide on the other, it is probably foolish to get too ambitious about science around here. Maybe things will settle down a bit, but we simply lack the competence and imagination right now to do much but avoid getting things horribly wrong if we are lucky.

Perhaps American science is not so broken that this bizarre moment would be the time to try to fix it.

It's hard to imagine such a creative change arising in the historically less agile societies of Europe or the Far East. Perhaps a burst of scientific creativity will emerge from somewhere unexpected, like Mexico or Brasil.


manuel moe g said...

MT: "Redesigning the situation is posited as a threat to "freedom", when in fact no freedom was exercised in the original design."

This cuts to the bone of so many so-called "Libertarian" objections to carbon sanity.

And, this is part of the answer to a question that always puzzles me: why are "dime-a-dozen" libertarians so closely aligned with the most reactionary of conservatives?

[Aside, noted with a pained chuckle: there is a threshold level of reactionary hysteria that is incompatible with true conservatism.]

This worship of "freedom" in name only is only slightly less ridiculous than, while being whipped with a length of rawhide by Pappy, renaming the rawhide "Freedom", and then smiling contently while Pappy thrashes away -- exercising the freedom to have a red buttocks and grinning magnificently because of it.

Anonymous said...

Freedom From and Freedom To are different concepts that are somewhere punching each other at the nexus of the American political divide. To a Libermerican freedom from is liberty and freedom to is socio-communist-pinko talk.

But a point of this post that might be interesting -- The same system that feeds closed science is the same system that needs science to be open.

David B. Benson said...

or Brasil

Where is that, anywhere near Brazil?

Essay needs some polishing, but the general trust is an excellent (and new) point.

EliRabett said...

"People creating useful information need to be able to make a good living doing that."

Which means that someone pays them.

Greg said...

It wasn't central to your thesis, but your first two commenters were attracted to it, so I'll go there too. At the end of the second paragraph you talk about a low-cooperation world, and how some people posit a redesign as a threat to freedom.

This is not illogical, in that those people really do see low-cooperation as a form of freedom. Why they see it as such an important form of freedom is a harder problem.

Michael Tobis said...

Ray P in email:

Big chuckle there. You didn't mention Augustine, but since you played the Ecclesiastes card in there obliquely, I'm sure you were thinking
of the Confession: "Lord grant me chastity... but not yet."

Paul Baer said...

Interesting post.

We just had a presentation at our faculty meeting today from the chair of a university committee addressing "open access publishing" (not coincidentally the chair of Computer Science here at Georgia Tech and a former Editor in Chief of a top CS journal). She described the dance that universities are going through with the publishers to get the right to archive faculty publications on their own site. Didn't raise the question of alternative methods of peer review, but it's lurking right below the surface.