02 April 2009

Open Science Requires Open Source

As Peter Suber rightly points out, this paper offers a reversal of the usual argument, where open access is justified by analogy with open source:

Astronomical software is now a fact of daily life for all hands-on members of our community. Purpose-built software for data reduction and modeling tasks becomes ever more critical as we handle larger amounts of data and simulations. However, the writing of astronomical software is unglamorous, the rewards are not always clear, and there are structural disincentives to releasing software publicly and to embedding it in the scientific literature, which can lead to significant duplication of effort and an incomplete scientific record. We identify some of these structural disincentives and suggest a variety of approaches to address them, with the goals of raising the quality of astronomical software, improving the lot of scientist-authors, and providing benefits to the entire community, analogous to the benefits provided by open access to large survey and simulation datasets. Our aim is to open a conversation on how to move forward.

The central argument is important: that you can't do science with closed source software, because you can't examine its assumptions or logic (that "incomplete scientific record"). Open science demands open source.

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Stevan Harnad said...


Peer-reviewed research journal articles contain the author's verbatim text. Their texts' content (ideas, findings) can be freely re-used (with attribution), re-mixed, and re-published, by anyone. But their verbatim text may not (and need not).

Research data are something else again: They do need to be not only freely accessible but freely re-usable, re-mixable (data-minable), and re-publishable, just as free/open source software (and other targets of the Creative Commons Licensing movement) need to be. A model is the human genome project.

But research data are not published in research journal articles.

The primary target of the Open Access (OA) movement is the text of peer-reviewed research journal articles. This is because all those authors, without exception, want to give those texts away for the use of all would-be users online.

Unfortunately, not all those authors want to make all their research data freely accessible online for use and re-use (at least not immediately, before they have had a chance to data-mine and analyze them themselves).

Data giveaway is still the exception, not the rule; the same is true of software give-away as well as audio, video, and book giveaway (by their respective creators).

That is why the OA movement focuses on article-texts as a matter of priority. (Because they are all exception-free author give-aways -- and hence their institutions and funders can mandate that they must be made OA.)

And that is why it is a big mistake to conflate article-texts with data, software, audio, video or books, which are definitely not all or mostly exception-free creator give-aways -- hence OA cannot be mandated for them.

'On the affinities and disaffinities among free software, peer-to-peer access, and open access to peer-reviewed research'. Free Software and Beyond: The World of Peer Production, 4th Oekonux and P2P Foundation Conference. Manchester, UK, 27-29 March 2009.

Stevan Harnad
American Scientist Open Access Forum

Glyn Moody said...

Thanks, that's an important point. We need to work more on open access to data in the future for science to be reproducible.