24 July 2006

Open Science and Modularity

As the open meme sweeps through field after field, there is a tendency to assume that openness on its own is enough. But as this wise post by Pedro Beltrão about open science explains, there's something else you need if you are to get the full benefits of opening up: modularity.

Open source thrives because major tasks are split up into smaller ones, joined by clean interfaces. This enables tasks to be distributed, and sometimes performed in parallel. Competition operates at the level of the small tasks - the best solutions are chosen - rather than at the top level, which is how proprietary software typically works.

But as Beltrão points out, science is still encouraging competition at the topmost level - at the point when results are published - which leads to teams being scooped and work wasted. Far more sensible if the whole were split up into smaller tasks where competition can operate more fruitfully, and he has some practical suggestions about how that might be achieved.

2 comments:

Pedro Beltrão said...

I think you understood the idea better than myself even :). It is still a bit clouded in my head but I thought bouncing it on the web would attract some discussion.
Nice analogy to the open source software. I was thinking more of modularity and the evolution of living cells and it was interesting that you associate it to the evolution of software. I guess it might be trivial but I find it fascinating that studying evolvability is useful to design selection systems for human activities.

glyn moody said...

No, I don't think it's trivial at all: I've not come across the idea of decomposing the scientific method into smaller modules before, and there are good mathematical reasons why Darwinian selection works.

And based on the analogies with open source - which, after all, is a cognate kind of activity - it seems to me that it would be highly useful to explore your idea in practical terms.