Titus Brown, a professor at MSU, is conducting a social experiment with his bioinformatics research approach that he calls ‘open science’. He posted an informative commentary about what he learned so far and his suggestions for what the institutions should do. We agree with many things he said, and the following commentary is only on the points we disagree with.
In the specific realm of biology and software, I think there’s a strong argument to be made that the future belongs to those who try to build good software. I hope so. But I’m getting tired of the slow pace, and I’m not sure how to accelerate things – discussion and ideas here. (I hope to have some good news on this front in a few weeks, BTW.)
What he and others call ‘open science’ is really not science, but rather technology development.
In the context of technology development, ‘openness’ was invented many centuries ago and it was called patent.
The word patent originates from the Latin patere, which means “to lay open” (i.e., to make available for public inspection).
When an inventor is granted a patent, he tells others about his know-how and others agree to pay him a fee for using his invention. There is always risk that others will try to tweak his method and find a better solution. Also, there is risk that others will get ahead lot faster by leveraging his discovery. Everything Titus mentioned about his experience of ‘openness’ had been learned by technology developers for centuries.
Companies often choose between getting a ‘patent’ or keeping a ‘trade secret’ (closed discovery). Here is a classic example of trade secret leaking out.
RC4 was designed by Ron Rivest of RSA Security in 1987. While it is officially termed “Rivest Cipher 4”, the RC acronym is alternatively understood to stand for “Ron’s Code” (see also RC2, RC5 and RC6).
RC4 was initially a trade secret, but in September 1994 a description of it was anonymously posted to the Cypherpunks mailing list. It was soon posted on the sci.crypt newsgroup, and from there to many sites on the Internet. The leaked code was confirmed to be genuine as its output was found to match that of proprietary software using licensed RC4. Because the algorithm is known, it is no longer a trade secret. The name RC4 is trademarked, so RC4 is often referred to as ARCFOUR or ARC4 (meaning alleged RC4) to avoid trademark problems. RSA Security has never officially released the algorithm; Rivest has, however, linked to the English Wikipedia article on RC4 in his own course notes. RC4 has become part of some commonly used encryption protocols and standards, including WEP and WPA for wireless cards and TLS.
Academic scholars also had a system for sharing their ideas and making sure they were properly cited. The honor system was called ‘plagiarism’. We covered the history of plagiarism here. Plagiarism was not equivalent to copyright violation until academics sold their research journals to commercial entities. Instead anyone, who did not properly cite prior discoveries, was considered an unethical writer. Check NIH guidelines for ethical writing and plagiarism, and you will find those rules still being mentioned.
That system is thrown out of the window, and today scientists (‘technology developers’) have to curry favors (aka ‘marketing’ in tech world) to get their papers cited.
All that reinvention of openness wheel is fine and dandy except one problem. Unlike patenting world supported by users of an invention paying the inventor for his openness, the open world of Titus is sustained through government money. Based on the blog post of Titus and few comments, a consensus needs to be created for ‘science’ to gain acceptance, and ‘openness’ is the method for gaining consensus.
That creates several problems for science, because major scientific discoveries were never popular at the time of discovery. Euler’s formula, described by Feynman as “one of the most remarkable, almost astounding, formulas in all of mathematics”, was not very popular in 18th century Europe full of farmers. Darwin’s theory was not accepted for many decades. What is the guarantee that the scientific discovery of today that people will refer to in year 2300 is popular today.
The above paragraph is not true for technology development, and almost all cool examples cited by readers of Dr. Brown’s blog are technological discoveries. Therefore, we believe the disagreement 1 is more important in this context than disagreement 2.