Can We Sustain Open Initiatives?

Some thoughts on our ability to sustain open iniatives, particularly in light of the proposed Research Works Act, legislation that would end open access requirements for federally funded research.

January 5, 2012

Will "open" win versus "closed" and/or proprietary systems? Can it win?

I'd love to be able to say "of course it will" with the same sort of conviction and assuredness that I can when it comes to a Shakespearean comedy ending in marriage or an episode of House concluding with a medical diagnosis and life-saving cure. But life is stranger than fiction (or something like that), and I'm not sure who's writing the script when it comes to the future of open initiatives in education or what their view of a happy ending would even be.

I've been thinking about the future of "open" a lot lately, because despite great strides in the last few years in open science, open data, open education, open access, open source and the like, I have this feeling that we're seeing some major pushback against those very efforts.

Case in point: a proposed bill called the Research Works Act (HR 3699) that would end the open access efforts by the National Institutes of Health and effectively prohibit any other federal agencies from implementing similar programs. The legislation, co-sponsored by Representatives Darrell Issa (R-CA) and Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), reads: "No Federal agency may adopt, implement, maintain, continue, or otherwise engage in any policy, program, or other activity that -- (1) causes, permits, or authorizes network dissemination of any private-sector research work without the prior consent of the publisher of such work; or (2) requires that any actual or prospective author, or the employer of such an actual or prospective author, assent to network dissemination of a private-sector research work."

The bill would put an end to the NIH's PubMedCentral, a free online database of journal articles based on research funded with federal dollars, an effort that as The Atlantic's Rebecca Rosen notes has long been frowned upon by the Association of American Publishers. She cites a three year old blog post by Paul Courant, the University of Michigan Librarian -- because yes, legislation like this has been introduced before -- that argues:

The NIH spends over $28 billion in taxpayer money annually to fund research. Researchers write articles about their findings, and their peers review those articles, without compensation from publishers. Without the research, there would be nothing to publish. Largely due to historical accident, publishers manage the peer review process, helping journal editors to badger referees into reviewing articles, generally for no pay. The value of the scientific expertise that goes into refereeing dwarfs that of the office expenses incurred by publishers in managing the process. The referees' salaries are paid by universities and research institutes, not by publishers. Basically, we have a system in which the public pays for the research, the universities pay for the refereeing, the publishers pay for office work to coordinate the refereeing, and also for some useful editing. Then the publishers turn around and sell the results back to the universities and to the public who bore almost all of the costs in the first place.

The people of the United States pay good money to learn about the world. It would be a travesty if Congress decided that the interests of a few publishers were more important than the research investments of the American public, and that's exactly what this bill would do.

Perhaps HR 3699 will meet the same fate as these earlier efforts to undo open access. The bill is now before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform -- here's a list of committee members should you wish to contact your representative.

And while I'm sure lots of researchers and academics (and yes others) will do just that and will agitate against this piece of protectionist legislation, I wonder how well we help make it really clear to everyone why this matters. I wonder how well we are sustaining open initiatives -- not just against the threat of proprietary forces, but against more of a general sort of complacency.

In other words, why does "open" matter?

In the case of federally-funded health research, that's an easy argument to make. But elsewhere? In other areas?

I was really struck by the news late last year that Google's Chrome browser had overtaken Mozilla's Firefox for market share for the first time. The open source Firefox played a crucial role in helping unseat IE from completely dominating our Web browsing experience (and for that, I thank you, Mozilla!). And it wouldn't surprise me if it was, for a lot of non-techies in particular, many folks' first introduction to the idea of open source technology. As such, the Firefox versus IE argument was clearcut way to think about "open" versus "proprietary." Making the switch to Firefox was a technological and a philosophical decision -- it was better in both cases.

So what do we make then of our collective decision to move to Chrome and away from Firefox? (And yes, I do realize that there are elements of Google's browser that are open source, and that Google -- accurately or not -- has wrapped itself in a mantle of openness.) Yes, somewhere along the way Firefox became bloated. As such, Google was able to make the case that its browser is the fastest, the most secure, the most modern. And so people shrugged and ditched "open" for "closed" -- because that distinction didn't really seem to matter.

So how do we sustain and spread open initiatives? Because it seems like it isn't simply that proprietary systems want things to be closed. It's that most folks simply don't care.

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