Sunday, February 5, 2012

Open and Closed

In class I have heard a lot of discussion about openness, and in particular about open science. While I have my opinions about open science, its relative merits are not the focus of this post. Instead, I want to write about an interesting phenomenon in which a movement towards openness eventually becomes the main source of frustration to its proponents. More concisely, due to changes in technology and expectations, a movement for openness created a closed system.

To begin, I'll establish a working definition for open science, taken from

  • Transparency in experimental methodology, observation, and collection of data.
  • Public availability and reusability of scientific data.
  • Public accessibility and transparency of scientific communication.
  • Using web-based tools to facilitate scientific collaboration.
Now, I want to look back to the beginnings of scientific publishing. Following the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century (most of this occurred in between 1660 and 1793), a bunch of scientists got together and formed some official scientific societies. Some were government-sponsored (like the Royal Society of London, still around today) and some were private, but all organized for what was essentially open science for the time. Knock the fourth bullet point off of the list above, which was impossible to them for obvious reasons, and you have the goals, more or less, of scientific societies. They accomplished much in creating the first international networks of scientific communication and publishing scientific discoveries and papers in the new format of compilation known as journals.

That's right, journals. The very monster of non-open science today. It is not immediately apparent that the compilation of research and results into journals, which today are highly inaccessible to people not affiliated with a laboratory or university, was originally done with the explicit purpose of making science more accessible.

Did they have the wrong idea? No. Looking back then, the barriers against openness in science were logistical. How do you get the word out to people without computers, smartphones, televisions, or radios? Prior to that point each scientist published his own results in his own books. I haven't studied too much into the economics of this but it seems likely that a periodical distribution of scientific literature is a much more cost-effective option to those desiring to read up on science as compared with single books from individual scientists. If you wanted to get the word out about anything then, the only way to do it was through print, and periodicals were the most open way to go.

Now things have changed a little bit. We have newer, better, more convenient ways to access scientific data. A print periodical is no longer the most open and convenient way to present information because we now have the internet. Oddly enough, though, the problem is not print versus digital, because all of the journals with which I am familiar are fully accessible online. Rather, the natural exigence of the journal to maintain itself requires that they continue to charge money for something that we might reasonably expect for free given our cultural expectations today. What is that money supporting? I haven't really found clear sources on that, but I'm sure it has to do with the peer-reviewing and editing process. The prices do, nevertheless, seem exorbitant. It is very difficult to get a look at research without paying more than any of us expect or want to pay. However, though the journal charges a lot, it is still the preferred vehicle for presentation of research because it provides authority: to be published, you need to be peer-reviewed.

The only reason this whole open/closed idea came about was because all of a sudden change in expectations of many. It's not that journals cut off access to that which we could see before. The open-science movement today is a recognition that more access is technically achievable than is currently being allowed. In order for it to be achieved, however, journals must offer for free that for which people currently pay. Will they not be able to support themselves after that point? While what they charge seems grossly overblown, they could not support themselves in their current model of operation for free.

Thus the journal, being conceived as a method of increasing access to science, eventually turned into the barrier to openness. It isn't because their nature changed; it's because our expectations changed.

Here's a suggestion: I wrote in my last posts about people doing volunteer science; I suggested that it was not feasible. However, it is perfectly conceivable that in our age a volunteer journal could arise; if you got the right people together, all willing to do their part for free, an online scientific journal free for use could arise. Peer-reviewing could be crowdsourced in a manner similar to editing articles on Wikipedia, the major difference being that strict controls on the credentials of reviewers would be necessary. Thus the people behind this would have to develop a network of capable and willing reviewers in advance. In general, the details would not be trivial problems to work out, but maybe openness in scientific publication depends on a non-profit journal of this variety.

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