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A Better Class Of Garbage: Open, Accessible Science

“When you push the leading edge of analysis, you risk giving away proprietary information.” – a manager at almost every science-technology company today

vs.

“Tesla knows that its best chance of dominating a large electric vehicle industry depends on there being a large electric vehicle industry.” – Matt Hall on Tesla’s decision to share its patents

All my life, I have been a great lover of science, gadgets and books. Little did I fathom as a kid that these things would be controlled one day not by scientists, authors and creators, but by corporate attorneys, publishing houses, for-profit scientific societies, government representatives in the pay of narrow interests and shareholders.

Now, as a corporate oil and gas geoscientist, board member of Project Gutenberg and human, I am increasingly negatively impacted by “proprietary,” “copyright,” “patented” and “intellectual property.” In two graduate programs and three different companies, I’ve worked on groundbreaking and impactful projects, but very little of it is known outside of that immediate circle of colleagues. Be it new findings and interdisciplinary collaborations in structural geology, 3D visualization, mature oilfield development, geospatial research or frontier oil exploration, I’ve asked to publish and the response has always been the same: An edict from the research institution or senior management that publishing on this topic is only possible if official channels of management/partners/government/lawyers approve it. Once past The Process, the manuscript takes a few years to make it to press in a limited-access journal to which few in the public have access.

Elsewhere, the fight against copyright term extension continues on which rests the fate of thousands of books that are now in the public domain. And, on a much more personal level, the frustrating inability to freely access taxpayer-funded medical and pharmaceutical research that can save precious lives.

I see a very urgent need for (a) an open and accessible repository of scientific information on the scale of Project Gutenberg, (b) rapid cross-platform/cross-software exchange of big data (as in big databases AND data-files-information of MB-PB size) to increase the speed and efficiency of scientific analysis and (c) a strong open-science lobbying organization that has a good working relationship with and backing from the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Creative Commons.

Closed, inaccessible, proprietary, exclusive and walled are not unrelated; they are a direct result of treating information and analysis as property for purported financial gain and enacting laws to protect this system. However, the quality and progress of science and human knowledge suffers, fewer people know of and have access to said science and knowledge, and money and value are not really made using this short-sighted model. If Company X drills a well in the same area as Company Y and shares its findings with Y in a timely fashion, both X and Y stand to gain from the shared knowledge and more hydrocarbon is discovered. If I were allowed to share my geophysical analysis in an open-access forum, other geophysicists could quickly critique my work and the science and my employer move forward.  If scientific societies and conferences were to open up their journals and conference proceedings to the public, it would only increase results dissemination, interest in sciences and the number of its practitioners. Instead of creating more of our industry and in a meaningful way, we swallow our own tails. This has to stop. To save our science and livelihoods, to achieve more books and readers and to keep people alive, copyrights, patents and other barriers to access have to be short-lived.

One can argue that competitive advantage is a key requirement for corporate success, that the secret formula is what keeps customers buying your product over others. But, too many times have I seen companies bank on a single, once-great formula for too long and realize later that their competition or up-and-comers have moved on. (Whenever I come across a situation like this, I am reminded of Jason Robards as Murray Burns in A Thousand Clowns and this bit of dialogue: “It is definitely second-rate garbage. Now, by next week I want to see a better class of garbage, more empty champagne bottles and caviar cans! So, let’s snap it up and get on the ball!”) Innovation, be it their own or someone else’s, keeps a company’s R&D on its game and from believing its own press. Something else to consider: If you’re a company of more than one, your secrets aren’t really that well-kept. So, let’s snap it up, get on the ball and publish them in an open and accessible manner!

There is a reason I say “accessible” and “open.” Just because information is out there doesn’t mean you can find and get it easily. And once you get it, it doesn’t mean you know what to do with it. Open information, using my scientific context as an example, is useless unless I can find it in a web-searchable database, download it in a widely-readable format, use the data in software I have and understand findings easily or with minimal effort. An item’s purposeful impenetrability, be it in the form of obtuse academic jargon or proprietary/arcane file format, is as good as not sharing it at all.

In this day and age of global internet access and web-based everything, it is our responsibility as scientists to share our work in an efficient and meaningful manner so that many may learn, grow, live and produce. We’ve got to start challenging the barriers starting with our own management and on to attorneys and elected government representatives. And all of us have to ask ourselves this: How and when do we as a society redefine monetary value in terms of the sustainable and widely-beneficial? If this question isn’t addressed and soon, we will not just lose scientific knowledge and health, we will increasingly not return from each following recession, and they’re coming. There won’t be anything to come back to.

***

In three weeks’ time, I will attend the ninth annual and my very first Science Foo conference, which throws around 250 of the world’s scientists, technologists, thinkers and other troublemakers in the Googleplex for a weekend to see what happens. It is very much an interdisciplinary unconference in that there are no pre-planned topics and talks, attendees define the agenda on the first day and the only real rule is that you come prepared to talk and share. I will be signing up to give a lightning talk on the openness and accessibility of scientific data and research findings as outlined above, and hope this topic is chosen. Furthermore, I’ve proposed a work session on the rapid, cross-platform/cross-software exchange of big data (big databases AND data-files-information of megabyte to petabyte size) to increase speed and efficiency of scientific analysis. It looks like several others are interested in big data from the perspective of the relationship between academic research and industry, discovery of signals in big datasets, visualization and what comes after big data. Livetweeting will happen; liveblogging if the muse strikes.

2 comments… add one

  • Blair July 21, 2014, 4:34 PM

    Elon Musk’s approach will help the electric car industry grow, but it also recognizes that you don’t win a race by standing still and protecting your territory. Strategy dictates that you move forward as fast as you can and let others try to keep up. It is the equivalent of not sitting on a lead in sports.

    Science and technology cannot advance without openness and individuals, academic groups, corporations and governments will all lose ground by limiting communication.

  • Matt Hall August 2, 2014, 3:53 PM

    Great post and, wow, Sci Foo sounds great. I can’t wait to hear about it. It looks a bit like the sort of conference I dream about for subsurface scientists. Gonna be tied to your twitter feed for that one… Safe travels!

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