Moral dimensions of Open, part 4: “on the shoulders of giants”

April 12, 2016

This is the fifth part of a series on the Moral Dimensions of Open, in preparation for the forthcoming OSI2016 meeting, where I’ll be in the Moral Dimensions group.

What I want to look at this time is the efficiency of sharing: as Glyn Moody pointed out on Twitter, the more people share, the more others can build on it, then share, then build — and so on. The work each of us does becomes easier, and better, and more productive, because of the work others have already done. We become partners in the great enterprise of research.


This is hardly a novel observation, of course. Isaac Newton famously said it best, in a letter to Robert Hooke on 15 February 1676. Although he was not by nature a modest man, he made the rather brilliant observation: “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”.

But the great thing about this is that the quote itself stands on the shoulders of a giant — it’s a modified version of an earlier observation by John of Salisbury (1120 – October 25 1180), who wrote:

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.

And as Johnny-boy makes clear, he was also not the originator of this profound observation — it was due to Bernard of Chartres, who died shortly after John of Salisbury was born.

What’s happened here? Newton has not merely lifted John-of-S.’s quote: he has substantially improved on it. Newton’s version is pithier and more striking: there’s good reason why it’s the version everyone quotes. He built on the earlier work of J.-of-Salisbury, and the yet earlier work of B.-of-C., to make something new and valuable.


And this of course is the whole purpose of scholarly communication. It’s why we have academic publishers: to make it possible for us to progress our fields by standing on each other’s shoulders.

Unfortunately, the publishers are mostly standing on our toes.

No-one intended this. No-one started an academic publisher for the money (at least, not until recently), but out of genuine desire to advance scholarship. In the pre-Internet era, journals were simply the state of the art for disseminating information. And since each printed copy of a journal cost money to make and distribute, a fee was quite properly charged for each copy. There was no alternative.

All that changed with the advent of the Internet in general, and the World Wide Web in particular. Now that the Web is used for so many things — commerce, media streaming, blogging, auctions, cat photos — it’s easy to forget what it was invented for. But we needn’t forget, because we have archived copies of the very first email ever sent by Tim Berners-Lee about this new “World Wide Web” thingy that he had come up with:


Yes, folks, you read it right. The whole purpose of the Web was to enable the free sharing of scholarly publications. It was a technology given to the world for the betterment of information sharing.

Viewed in this light, it’s clear that open access is nothing more than the Web working right. And the continuation of printed-on-paper journal limitations by other means (i.e. paywalls) constitutes a deliberate impediment to all the advances we could be making now that the technology has improved.

By happy coincidence, Peter Murray-Rust has blogged just today about some of those possible advances — in this case, based on content mining:

We have already shown that mining detects errors in the literature which can be put right – indeed our technology could be valuable in the reviewing and editing of material for publication. Another is the sheer scale – we could mine the whole literature for – say – breeding grounds and create systematic maps. That brings benefits. But there are also dangers – it may pinpoint endangered areas or species. But this is the inevitable challenge of the Digital Century – we have to learn how to live with and manage massive new knowledge.

(The bolding of the last part is mine, not Peter’s.)

We’re facing the possibility of such an enormous amount of new knowledge that one of the challenges we will be presented with is how to live with it. We have the technology to stand on the shoulders of millions of giants simultaneously. What a great problem to have! And how tragic when 20th-Century technology actively prevents us from reaching this state.

This shoulders-of-giants argument regarding Open is a very positive one. I like that. Some pro-open arguments can be rather negative: “publishers make too much profit”, “the public shouldn’t be prevented from reading what it paid for” and so on. But this one is wholly positive: open access, and open scholarship in general, enables us to do much more!

I’ve leave the last word to Cameron Neylon, and a blog-post that I have often cited as a vision of our possible future: Network Enabled Research: Maximise scale and connectivity, minimise friction:

We need to get as much material online as fast as we can. We need to connect it up, to make it discoverable, to make sure that people can find and understand and use it. And we need to ensure that once found those resources can be easily transferred, shared, and used. And used in any way – at network scale the system is designed to ensure that resources get used in unexpected ways. At scale you can have serendipity by design, not by blind luck.

Let’s not accept systems and conventions that prevent this happening.

[ Finish up with part 5: whose responsibility is this?]

4 Responses to “Moral dimensions of Open, part 4: “on the shoulders of giants””

  1. Bill Hooker Says:

    A bit off-topic, but apropos of much of the current OA discourse: the way I heard it was, Newton was a real asshole. The Salisbury quote was well known, and in referencing it he was calling Hooke, who was understandably sensitive about his diminutive stature and crooked spine, a dwarf — without actually coming right out and saying “dwarf”. It was as spiteful as it was quotable.

  2. […] paid for, the very high profit margins of scholarly publishers, and the crucial observation that science advances best and fastest when we can build on each other’s work with minimal friction. I’d like to bring the series to a close by asking this question: if we want change, who is […]

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