Promises and obstacles of open access science – Thus Spake John Wilbanks

February 25, 2009 at 6:04 am 1 comment

Anyone knows who John Wilbanks is? Well, I just found out. John Wilbanks Recently a post on slashdot caught my attention – it was both science-y and geeky – a combo I simply couldn’t resist. It linked to an interview with the said John Wilbanks, where he speaks very wisely indeed about some of the central issues of modern science: scientific communication, open access publishing, data accessibility and storage, and more. John is VP of Science at Creative Commons (article on Wikipedia) an organization whose sole purpose is to make it easier for people to share their creative work if they so desire (check out this movie on YouTube for a no-brainer explanation of how it works, and this website for another movie on how it relates to science). As the interview is rather lengthy, I decided to summarize its main themes in this post, and, well, I wouldn’t be myself if I didn’t take the liberty to venture a few opinions of my own.

First, John explains what the main goal of Science Commons is:

[…] get the law out of the way, and let the traditional norms of science, which really are the ideals of community and of sharing of information, apply […]

More precisely, John envisions nothing short of a revolution in science communication:

[We would like to] bring those norms into the Internet age with things like standard copyright licenses that Creative Commons has developed, […] new ways to track impact, bringing ideas like trackback that came from the blog world to the scientific communication world. [We want to] help convince people that the public domain is something to be cherished, and not a thing to be avoided at all costs when it comes to things like data […] make biological material and other sorts of physical research materials move around the world, the way that Amazon moves books around.

And the means to bring this about is developing “legal, technical, and policy tools”.

Well, so far all is well. These are very lofty ideals and they get all my moral support (I am a little too poor to make financial contributions just yet). However, a little later John makes a statement that I have a bit more of a hard time agreeing with:

I think [that the dense, passive voice style of scientific publications gets in the way]. I think there’s a little bit of a Guild mentality […] in terms of the language and structure and flow of these papers. It’s taken me some time to learn how to read them. And it’s artificially idealized I think. […] the reality is much more ambiguous. […] the way that we write those papers […] really keeps people out of science.

There is esentially two things I disagree with here: (1) that scientific jargon and style is a bad thing for the papers and (2) that this is what keeps people out of science. The style of scientific papers has evolved over years and years of scientific communication and it has reached the point where it is both efficient and precise – two essential things for communicating research results. Maybe there is a “Guild mentality” but it is just the same as with any specialized occupation, such as computer programmers, fighter jet pilots, and car mechanics – it is secondary to the language they use, not the reason why they developed their jargon. As for keeping people out of science, this is, with all due respect, just ridiculous. Science has long passed the point at which self-taught geniuses, like Leonardo da Vinci or Charles Darwin, could make seminal contributions to its progress. Nowadays, any sort of impactful research requires years of study of intricate details of the subsubsubfield you specialize in, and of the larger context of your studies. That, in turn, requires reading of hundreds of papers, and just about anyone will very quickly get used to their style after perusing just a few. If people just want a more gentle introduction into resarch subjects of importance, there is an abundance of magazines,  websites and blogs which offer a pre-digested amateur-readable versions of research papers.

Well, enough ranting, let’s give the floor back to John. He later talks about patents, and how he really doesn’t mind people making profit out of their intellectual property, but what he really has a problem with is:

[…] people who try to lock up taxpayer funded literature. The way that we have had this difficulty in getting the clinical trial papers that our tax dollars have funded […] makes it very hard to […] A) first read the stuff you paid for with your tax dollars, but B) take that information and really make it digital. Hyperlink it. Convert it. Mix it. Rip it. Spindle. Mutilate.

Fair enough. Taxpayers should have access to the science they paid for. Very good point, and important in arguing for open access. Let’s just maybe leave the “mutilate” part out, OK?

Then we are back to patents, and how to make the system work better by making use of standardized licenses, by crowd-sourcing of prior art, and by making it easier for people to estimate the costs of licensing before they start innovating on top of patented solutions. All important issues, especially for biotech startups, but I found John’s explanations rather fuzzy, maybe because I am not exactly an expert in the patent field.

After that, John has some really interesting things to say about open access publishing:

I would say that it’s become an adolescent? Which means it’s trying to steal dad’s car, and it’s acting up. It’s made it out of early childhood, that’s for sure. The Public Library of Science has become a very high-impact, very respected journal publisher. It’s at the highest levels of scientific quality. And their business model is still developing. And I think that their new PLoS ONE venture, which is a new online only thing, and their upcoming hubs work which is going to build communities, those are going to be really interesting things to watch.
In terms of sort of proving itself from a business perspective, BioMed Central, who has nearly 250 journals, I believe, under Creative Commons licenses, was sold in December to Springer. My understanding is that BMC’s annual revenues were in the 15 million pounds per year range. Again, not using any sort of copyright transfer when they were bought by Springer. And so that really was, I think, a vindication of the capability of a for-profit model that was open. And I love to point to Hindawi, which is in Egypt, which is also profitable, which has another few hundred journals under C.C. by license. So we’re certainly seeing some proof points that this can be high-quality and this can be profitable. But there’s still a lot of uncertainty as to how the existing journals adapt to that. It’s much easier to start from scratch with a new model than it is to change midstream.

Couple important points here. First, according to John Open Access can be profitable. So far as I can tell the numbers are not (yet???) convincing. Neither PLoS nor BMC journals are breaking even, despite relatively large author fees and, in the case of PLoS, major donations. That is not to say that they will never generate profit, but we don’t have a proof of concept right now that would suggest that. Second, existing closed-access journals are going to have to completely rethink their current strategy if they ever plan to become OA. John goes on to talk about how Science Commons works to facilitate this transition by helping out with building business models and publishing models, but he is silent about reasons why any journal might want to risk going under for the noble cause of open access. I find the paragraph above a bit too optimistic for my taste.

Next up is discussion of Semantic Web:

[…] communities involved [in handling large amounts of experimental data] have got to come to some agreement on meaning. And by meaning, I mean sort of standard names for things and relationships between things. Ontologies. Hierarchies. Taxonomies.

Now this is something really fascinating. A web of data, all interconnected by semantic relationships, enabling automated data mining, and true computer-assisted research. A nerdy scientist’s dream-come-true. Is that really going to work? John talks about several potential problems, such as figuring out who will be responsible for storing the data, and what kind of data to store:

[…] Is it the raw data? Is it the processed data? Is it the software used to process the data? Is it the normalized data? Is it the software used to normalize the data? Is it the interpretation of the normalized data? Is it the software we use to interpret the normalization of the data? Is it the operating systems on which all of those ran? What about genome data? […] ideally, what we could say is, “Okay. Well, we can delete the old data if there’s a physical sample.” Right? Because we can go back and recreate the genome data from an even smaller piece of it […] So suddenly, we’ve gone from the world of the digital back to the world of the physical samples as well.

The interview then moves on to a topic less science-y and more geeky – privacy and data security. Nihil novi – yeah, we need to focus on privacy blah, blah, blah. I am going to skip over that part, since I didn’t find it particularly enlightening.

Finally John discusses the challenges for his project (Science Commons) and for Open Access Science in general:

[…] there’s a constant challenge of funding because funding non-profits is always hard. In this economy, it’s almost lethally hard. But beyond that, I think the biggest challenge is what we started with which is that the existing systems for science are pretty robust against disruption […] the biggest challenge because you’ve got to do so many things simultaneously. You’ve got to deal with legal problems, both contract and intellectual property problems […] incentive problems […] workload and labor problems[…] Guild culture and the Guild communication systems, all of that at once.

Then the interview finishes with a short discussion of current Science Commons projects:

  • NeuroCommons, an open source data integration project, meant to be an experiment in Semantic Web
  • collection of biological materials under licenses resembling CC licenses
  • project with Nike and BestBuy about how to share patents and recreate the research exemption
  • partnership with a large technology company (to be announced)
  • acquisition of a large scientific database from a major pharmaceutical company

So that’s all, folks. The post is long enough as it is, so in my next blog entry I will try to serve you more food for thought along with some tasty links and a more personal perspective on this interview and on Open Access, so stay tuned for more.


Entry filed under: Biomedical research, Computers in science, Geeky stuff, Grantsmanship and biomedical writing, Philosophy of science. Tags: , , , , , , , .

Research paper 2.0 – Part 4 – Summary Socialism in science, or why Open Access may ultimately fail

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1.  |  February 11, 2013 at 9:02 am

    “Promises and obstacles of open access science – Thus Spake John Wilbanks Molecular Philosophy” seriously enables me
    contemplate a tiny bit further. I personally enjoyed every individual element of it.
    Thanks for your effort -Linnie

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