Mike Taylor’s ESOF2014 talk: should science always be open?
July 21, 2014
As recently noted, it was my pleasure and privilege on 25 June to give a talk at the ESOF2014 conference in Copenhagen (the EuroScience Open Forum). My talk was one of four, followed by a panel discussion, in a session on the subject “Should science always be open?“.
I had just ten minutes to lay out the background and the problem, so it was perhaps a bit rushed. But you can judge for yourself, because the whole session was recorded on video. The image is not the greatest (it’s hard to make out the slides) and the audio is also not all it could be (the crowd noise is rather loud). But it’s not too bad, and I’ve embedded it below. (I hope the conference organisers will eventually put out a better version, cleaned up by video professionals.)
Subbiah Arunachalam (from Arun, Chennai, India) asked me whether the full text of the talk was available — the echoey audio is difficult for non-native English speakers. It wasn’t but I’ve sinced typed out a transcript of what I said (editing only to remove “er”s and “um”s), and that is below. Finally, you may wish to follow the slides rather than the video: if so, they’re available in PowerPoint format and as a PDF.
It’s very gracious of you all to hold this conference in English; I deeply appreciate it.
“Should science always be open?” is our question, and I’d like to open with one of the greatest scientists there’s ever been, Isaac Newton, who humility didn’t come naturally to. But he did manage to say this brilliant humble thing: “If I have seen further, it’s by standing on the shoulders of giants.”
And the reason I love this quote is not just because it’s insightful in itself, but because he stole it from something John of Salisbury said right back in 1159. “Bernard of Chartres used to say that we were like dwarfs seated on the shoulders of giants. If we see more and further than they, it is not due to our own clear eyes or tall bodies, but because we are raised on high and upborne by their gigantic bigness.”
Well, so Newton — I say he stole this quote, but of course he did more than that: he improved it. The original is long-winded, it goes around the houses. But Newton took that, and from that he made something better and more memorable. So in doing that, he was in fact standing on the shoulders of giants, and seeing further.
And this is consistently where progress comes from. It’s very rare that someone who’s locked in a room on his own thinking about something will have great insights. It’s always about free exchange of ideas. And we see this happening in lots of different fields.
Over the last ten or fifteen years, enormous advances in the kinds of things computers working in networks can do. And that’s come from the culture of openness in APIs and protocols, in Silicon Valley and elsewhere, where these things are designed.
Going back further and in a completely different field, the Impressionist painters of Paris lived in a community where they were constantly — not exactly working together, but certainly nicking each other’s ideas, improving each other’s techniques, feeding back into this developing sense of what could be done. Resulting in this fantastic art.
And looking back yet further, Florence in the Renaissance was a seat of all sorts of advances in the arts and the sciences. And again, because of this culture of many minds working together, and yielding insights and creativity that would not have been possible with any one of them alone.
And this is because of network effects; or Metcalfe’s Law expresses this by saying that the value of a network is proportional to the square of the number of nodes in that network. So in terms of scientific reasearch, what that means is that if you have a corpus of published research output, of papers, then the value of that goes — it doesn’t just increase with the number of papers, it goes up with the square of the number of papers. Because the value isn’t so much in the individual bits of research, but in the connections between them. That’s where great ideas come from. One researcher will read one paper from here and one from here, and see where the connection or the contradiction is; and from that comes the new idea.
So it’s very important to increase the size of the network of what’s available. And that’s why we have a very natural tendency, I think among scientists particularly, but I think we can say researchers in other areas as well, have a natural tendency to share.
Now until recently, the big difficulty we’ve had with sharing has been logistical. It was just difficult to make and distribute copies of pieces of research. So this [picture of a printing press] is how we made copies, this [picture of stacks of paper] was what we stored them on, and this was how we transmitted them from one researcher to another.
And they were not the most efficient means, or at least not as efficient as what we now have available. And because of that, and because of the importance of communication and the links between research, I would argue that maybe the most important invention of the last hundred years is the Internet in general and the World Wide Web in particular. And the purpose of the Web, as it was initially articulated in the first public post that Tim Berners-Lee made in 1991 — he explained not just what the Web was but what it was for, and he said: “The project started with the philosophy that much academic information should be freely available to anyone. It aims to allow information sharing within internationally dispersed teams, and the dissemination of information by support groups.”
So that’s what the Web is for; and here’s why it’s important. I’m quoting here from Cameron Neylon, who’s great at this kind of thing. And again it comes down to connections, and I’m just going to read out loud from his blog: “Like all developments of new communication networks, SMS, fixed telephones, the telegraph, the railways, and writing itself, the internet doesn’t just change how well we can do things, it qualitatively changes what we can do.” And then later on in the same post: “At network scale the system ensures that resources get used in unexpected ways. At scale you can have serendipity by design, not by blind luck.”
Now that’s a paradox; it’s almost a contradiction, isn’t it? Serendipity by definition is what you get by blind luck. But the point is, when you have enough connections — enough papers floating around the same open ecosystem — all the collisions happening between them, it’s inevitable that you’re going to get interesting things coming out. And that’s what we’re aiming towards.
And of course it’s never been more important, with health crises, new diseases, the diminishing effectiveness of antibiotics, the difficulties of feeding a world of many billions of people, and the results of climate change. It’s not as though we’re short of significant problems to deal with.
So I love this Jon Foley quote. He said, “Your job” — as a researcher — “Your job is not to get tenure! Your job is to change the world”. Tenure is a means to an end, it’s not what you’re there for.
So this is the importance of publishing. Of course the word “publish” comes from the same root as the word “public”: to publish a piece of research means to make that piece of research public. And the purpose of publishing is to open research up to the world, and so open up the world itself.
And that’s why it’s so tragic when we run into this [picture of a paywalled paper]. I think we’ve all seen this at various times. You go to read a piece of research that’s valuable, that’s relevant to either the research you’re doing, or the job you’re doing in your company, or whatever it might be. And you run into this paywall. Thirty five dollars and 95 cents to read this paper. It’s a disaster. Because what’s happened is we’ve got a whole industry whose existence is to make things public, and who because of accidents of history have found themselves doing the exact opposite. Now no-one goes into publishing with the intent of doing this. But this is the unfortunate outcome.
So what we end up with is a situation where we’re re-imposing on the research community barriers that were necessarily imposed by the inadequate technology of 20 or 30 years ago, but which we’ve now transcended in technological terms but we’re still strugging with for, frankly, commercial reasons. This is why we’re struggling with this.
And I don’t like to be critical, but I think we have to just face the fact that there is a real problem when organisations, for many years have been making extremely high profits — these [36%, 32%, 34%, 42%] are the profit margins of the “big four” academic publishers which together hugely dominate the scholarly publishing market — and as you can see they’re in the range 32% to 42% of revenue, is sheer profit. So every time your university library spends a dollar on subscriptions, 40% of that goes straight out of the system to nowhere.
And it’s not surprising that these companies are hanging on desperately to the business model that allows them to do that.
Now the problem we have in advocating for open access is that when we stand against publishers who have an existing very profitable business model, they can complain to governments and say, “Look, we have a market that’s economically significant, it’s worth somewhere in the region of 10-15 billion US dollars a year.” And they will say to governments, “You shouldn’t do anything that might damage this.” And that sounds effective. And we struggle to argue against that because we’re talking about an opportunity cost, which is so much harder to measure.
You know, I can stand here — as I have done — and wave my hands around, and talk about innovation and opportunity, and networks and connections, but it’s very hard to quantify in a way that can be persuasive to people in a numeric way. Say, they have a 15 billion dollar business, we’re talking about saving three trillion’s worth of economic value (and I pulled that number out of thin air). So I would love, if we can, when we get to the discussions, to brainstorm some way to quantify the opportunity cost of not being open. But this is what it looks like [picture of flooding due to climate change]. Economically I don’t know what it’s worth. But in terms of the world we live in, it’s just essential.
So we’ve got to remember the mission that we’re on. We’re not just trying to save costs by going to open access publishing. We’re trying to transform what research is, and what it’s for.
So should science always be open? Of course, the name of the session should have been “Of course science should always be open”.
Belated update (24 September 2015)
I should have noted this long before, but the live-drawn poster that summarised all the talks in the session was scanned, and is available on the Zenodo respository. Here is the direct link to the JPEG (12912 by 3455 pixels).
My present Twitter avatar is based on the caricature of me in this poster.