In a time when open access, open data and open education resources are trending topics for the research community, it can be easy to get caught up in particular mechanisms and definitions. Cameron Neylon finds there is a need to revisit the motivations behind the word “open”. He argues that because of the extended scale of community networks, openness as a mind set encourages scholars to embrace humility in not knowing how scholarly contributions can be used.
I often return to the question of what “Open” means and why it matters. Indeed the very first blog post I wrote focussed on questions of definition. Sometimes I return to it because people disagree with my perspective. Sometimes because someone approaches similar questions in a new or interesting way. But mostly I return to it because of the constant struggle to get across the mindset that it encompasses.
Most recently I addressed the question of what “Open” is about in a online talk I gave for the Futurium Program of the European Commission (video is available). In this I tried to get beyond the definitions of Open Source, Open Data, Open Knowledge, and Open Access to the motivation behind them, something which is both non-obvious and conceptually difficult. All of these various definitions focus on mechanisms – on the means by which you make things open – but not on the motivations behind that. As a result they can often seem arbitrary and rules-focussed, and do become subject to the kind of religious wars that result from disagreements over the application of rules.
In the talk I tried to move beyond that, to describe the motivation and the mind set behind taking an open approach, and to explain why this is so tightly coupled to the rise of the internet in general and the web in particular. Being open as opposed to making open resources (or making resources open) is about embracing a particular form of humility. For the creator it is about embracing the idea that – despite knowing more about what you have done than any other person – the use and application of your work is something that you cannot predict. Similarly for someone working on a project being open is understanding that – despite the fact you know more about the project than anyone else – that crucial contributions and insights could come from unknown sources. At one level this is just a numbers game, given enough people it is likely that someone, somewhere, can use your work, or contribute to it in unexpected ways. As a numbers game it is rather depressing on two fronts. First, it feels as though someone out there must be cleverer than you. Second, it doesn’t help because you’ll never find them.
Most of our social behaviour and thinking feels as though it is built around small communities. People prefer to be a (relatively) big fish in a small pond, scholars even take pride in knowing the “six people who care about and understand my work”, the “not invented here” syndrome arises from the assumption that no-one outside the immediate group could possibly understand the intricacies of the local context enough to contribute. It is better to build up tools that work locally rather than put an effort into building a shared community toolset. Above all the effort involved in listening for, and working to understand outside contributions, is assumed to be wasted. There is no point in “listening to the public” because they will “just waste my precious time”. We work on the assumption that, even if we accept the idea that there are people out there who could use our work or could help, that we can never reach them. That there is no value in expending effort to even try. And we do this for a very good reason; because for the majority of people, for the majority of history it was true.
For most people, for most of history, it was only possible to reach and communicate with small numbers of people. And that means in turn that for most kinds of work, those networks were simply not big enough to connect the creator with the unexpected user, the unexpected helper with the project. The rise of the printing press, and then telegraph, radio, and television changed the odds, but only the very small number of people who had access to these broadcast technologies could ever reach larger numbers. And even they didn’t really have the tools that would let them listen back. What is different today is the scale of the communication network that binds us together. By connecting millions and then billions together the probability that people who can help each other can be connected has risen to the point that for many types of problem that they actually are.
That gap between “can” and “are”, the gap between the idea that there is a connection with someone, somewhere, that could be valuable, and actually making the connection is the practical question that underlies the idea of “open”. How do we make resources discoverable and re-usable so that they can find those unexpected applications? How do we design projects so that outside experts can both discover them and contribute? Many of these movements have focussed on the mechanisms of maximising access, the legal and technical means to maximise re-usability. These are important; they are a necessary but not sufficient condition for making those connections. Making resources open enables re-use, enhances discoverability, and by making things more discoverable and more usable, has the potential to enhance both discovery and usability further. But beyond merely making resources open we also need to be open.
Being open goes in two directions. First we need to be open to unexpected uses. The Open Source community was first to this principle by rejecting the idea that it is appropriate to limit who can use a resource. The principle here is that by being open to any use you maximise the potential for use. Placing limitations always has the potential to block unexpected uses. But the broader open source community has also gone further by exploring and developing mechanisms that support the ability of anyone to contribute to projects. This is why Yergler says “open source” is not a verb. You can license code, you can make it “open”, but that does not create an Open Source Project. You may have a project to create open source code, an “Open-source project“, but that is not necessarily a project that is open, an “Open source-project“. Open Source is not about licensing alone, but about public repositories, version control, documentation, and the creation of viable communities. You don’t just throw the code over the fence and expect a project to magically form around it, you invest in and support community creation with the aim of creating a sustainable project. Successful open source projects put community building, outreach, both reaching contributors and encouraging them, at their centre. The licensing is just an enabler.
In the world of Open Scholarship, and I would include both Open Access and Open Educational Resources in this, we are a long way behind. There are technical and historical reasons for this but I want to suggest that a big part of the issue is one of community. It is in large part about a certain level of arrogance. An assumption that others, outside our small circle of professional peers, cannot possibly either use our work or contribute to it. There is a comfort in this arrogance, because it means we are special, that we uniquely deserve the largesse of the public purse to support our work because others cannot contribute. It means we do not need to worry about access because the small group of people who understand our work “already have access”. Perhaps more importantly it encourages the consideration of fears about what might go wrong with sharing over a balanced assessment of the risks of sharing versus the risks of not sharing, the risks of not finding contributors, of wasting time, of repeating what others already know will fail, or of simply never reaching the audience who can use our work.
It also leads to religious debates about licenses, as though a license were the point or copyright was really a core issue. Licenses are just tools, a way of enabling people to use and re-use content. But the license isn’t what matters, what matters is embracing the idea that someone, somewhere can use your work, that someone, somewhere can contribute back, and adopting the practices and tools that make it as easy as possible for that to happen. And that if we do this collectively that the common resource will benefit us all. This isn’t just true of code, or data, or literature, or science. But the potential for creating critical mass, for achieving these benefits, is vastly greater with digital objects on a global network.
All the core definitions of “open” from the Open Source Definition, to the Budapest (and Berlin and Bethesda) Declarations on Open Access, to the Open Knowledge Definition have a common element at their heart – that an open resource is one that any person can use for any purpose. This might be good in itself, but that is not the real point, the point is that it embraces the humility of not knowing. It says, I will not restrict uses because that damages the potential of my work to reach others who might use it. And in doing this I provide the opportunity for unexpected contributions. With Open Access we’ve only really started to address the first part, but if we embrace the mind set of being open then both follow naturally.
This was originally posted on Cameron Neylon’s personal blog Science in the Open under
Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Impact of Social Science blog, nor of the London School of Economics.
Cameron Neylon is a biophysicist and well known advocate of opening up the process of research. He is Advocacy Director for PLOS and speaks regularly on issues of Open Science including Open Access publication, Open Data, and Open Source as well as the wider technical and social issues of applying the opportunities the internet brings to the practice of science. He was named as a SPARC Innovator in July 2010 and is a proud recipient of the Blue Obelisk for contributions to open data. He writes regularly at his blog, Science in the Open.