November 20, 2020

Open access in review

Edward_Jenner._Oil_painting._Wellcome_V0023503.jpgLast week's review of 30 years of writing about the Internet and copyright focused on rightsholders' efforts to protect a business model developed for physical media and geographical restrictions in the face of new, global, digital media. Of the counter-efforts, mainstream attention has focused on the illegal ones; I squeezed in links to most of my past writing on "pirate" sites, although I missed pieces on The Pirate Bay, BitTorrent, and new business models. I also missed out discussing large-scale appropriation by companies that are apparently too big to sue, such as Google books and the more recent fuss over the Internet Archive's Controlled Digital Lending and National Emergency Library.

More interesting, however, are the new modes of access the Internet clearly could open up to niche material and frustrated artists, creators, and collaborators. At the MIT Media Lab's 1994 open day (TXT), a remarkable collection of Hollywood producers, and creative artists predicted that the Internet would unlock a flood of (American) creativity that previously had no outlet (although Penn Jillette doubted the appeal of interactive storytelling).

Lots of this has actually happened. Writers have developed mainstream audiences through self-publishing; web-based publishing enabled generations of cartoonists; and YouTube and TikTok offer options that would never fit into a TV schedule. Mass collaboration has also flourished: Wikipedia, much despised in some quarters 15 years ago, has ripened into an invaluable resource (despite its flaws that need fixing), as has OpenStreetMap, which was outed this week as a crucial piece of infrastructure for Facebook, Apple, Amazon, and Microsoft.

Developing new forms of copyright law has been a critical element in all this, beginning with the idea of copyleft, first used in 1976 and fleshed out in more detail by Richard Stallman in 1985. Traditionally, either you copyrighted the work and claimed all rights or you put the work into the public domain for everyone to use for free, as the satirist Tom Lehrer has recently done.

Stallman, however, wanted to ensure that corporate interests couldn't appropriate the work of volunteers, and realized that he could write a copyright license that dictates those terms, paving the way for today's open source community. In 2001, Lawrence Lessig, Hal Abelson, and Eric Eldred founded Creative Commons to make it easy for people posting new material to the web to specify whether and how others can use it. It's easy to forget now how big an undertaking it was to create licenses that comply with so many legal systems. I would argue that it's this, rather than digital rights management that has enabled widespread Internet creative publishing.

The third piece of this story has played a crucial role in this pandemic year of A.D. 2020. In the halls of a mid-1990s Amsterdam conference on copyright, a guy named Christopher Zielinski made this pitch: a serious problem was brewing around early paywall experiments. How were people in poorer countries going to gain access to essential scientific and medical information? He had worked for the WHO, I think; in a later email I remember a phrase about information moving through disadvantaged countries in "armored trucks".

Zielinski was prescient. In 2015, the Ebola virus killed 10,000 people in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea, in part because received wisdom held that Ebola was not present in West Africa, slowing the initial response. It was only later that three members of a team drafting Liberia's Ebola recovery plan discover that scientific researchers had written articles establishing its presence as long ago as 1982. None of the papers were co-written with Liberian scientists, and they were published in European journals, which African researchers cannot afford. In this case, as writers Bernice Dahn, Vera Mussah, and Cameron Nutt laid out, closed access cost lives: "Equity must be an indispensable goal in protecting from threats like Ebola, and in the quality of care delivered when prevention fails."

Meanwhile, in another part of the early as 1991 others saw the potential of using the Internet to speed up scientific publishing and peer review, leading Paul Ginsparg to respond by creating the arXiv repository to share preprints of physics journal articles. Numerous copies for other fields followed. In 2003, leading research, scientific, and cultural institutions created and signed the Berlin Declaration on Open Access to Knowledge in the Sciences and Humanities laying out steps to promote the Internet as a medium for disseminating global knowledge. By 2006, the six-year-old Public Library of Science had set up PLOS ONE, the first peer-reviewed open access scientific journal for primary research in science and medicine.

While there are certainly issues to be solved, such as the proliferation of fake journals, improving peer review, and countering enduring prejudice that ties promotions and prestige to traditional proprietary journals, open access continues to grow. Those who believe that the Internet is going to destroy science are likely to be wrong, and publishers who don't plan for this future are likely to crater.

The global distribution accessible to artists and creators is valuable, but openness is critical to the scientific method of building knowledge. The open approach has been critical during the pandemic. As vaccine candidates prepare for takeoff, we can thank the Internet and the open access movement that it's taken a year, not decades.

Illustrations: Edward Jenner, who created the first vaccine, for smallpox (from the Wellcome images collection, via Wikimedia).

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.

May 3, 2019

Reopening the source

"There is a disruption coming." Words of doom?

Several months back we discussed Michael Salmony's fear that the Internet is about to destroy science. Salmony reminded that his comments came in a talk on the virtues of the open economy, and then noted the following dangers:

- Current quality-assurance methods (peer-review, quality editing, fact checking etc) are being undermined. Thus potentially leading to an avalanche of attention-seeking open garbage drowning out the quality research;
- The excellent high-minded ideals (breaking the hold of the big controllers, making all knowledge freely accessible etc) of OA are now being subverted by models that actually ask authors (or their funders) to spend thousands of dollars per article to get it "openly accessible". Thus again privileging the rich and well connected.

The University of Bath associate professor Joanna Bryson rather agreed with Salmony, also citing the importance of peer review. So I stipulate: yes, peer review is crucial for doing good science.

In a posting deploring the death of the monograph, Bryson notes that, like other forms of publishing, many academic publishers are small and struggle for sustainability. She also points to a Dutch presentation arguing that open access costs more.

Since she, as an academic researcher, has skin in this game, we have to give weight to her thoughts. However, many researchers dissent, arguing that academic publishers like Elsevier, Axel Springer profit from an unfair and unsustainable business model. Either way, an existential crisis is rolling toward academic publishers like a giant spherical concrete cow.

So to yesterday's session on the ten-year future of research, hosted by European Health Forum Gastein and sponsored by Elsevier. The quote of doom we began with was voiced there.

The focal point was a report (PDF), the result of a study by Elsevier and Ipsos MORI. Their efforts eventually generated three scenarios: 1) "brave open world", in which open access publishing, collaboration, and extensive data sharing rule; 2) "tech titans", in which technology companies dominate research; 3) "Eastern ascendance", in which China leads. The most likely is a mix of the three. This is where several of us agreed that the mix is already our present. We surmised, cattily, that this was more an event looking for a solution to Elsevier's future. That remains cloudy.

The rest does not. For the last year I've been listening to discussions about how academic work can find greater and more meaningful impact. While journal publication remains essential for promotions and tenure within academia, funders increasingly demand that research produce new government policies, change public conversations, and provide fundamentally more effective practice.

Similarly, is there any doubt that China is leading innovation in areas like AI? The country is rising fast. As for "tech titans", while there's no doubt that these companies lead in some fields, it's not clear that they are following the lead of the great 1960s and 1970s corporate labs like Bell Labs, Xerox PARC and IBM Watson, which invested in fundamental research with no connection to products. While Google, Facebook, and Microsoft researchers do impressive work, Google is the only one publicly showing off research, that seems unrelated to its core business">.

So how long is ten years? A long time in technology, sure: in 2009: Twitter, Android, and "there's an app for that" were new(ish), the iPad was a year from release, smartphones got GPS, netbooks were rising, and 3D was poised to change the world of cinema. "The academic world is very conservative," someone at my table said. "Not much can change in ten years."

Despite Sci-Hub, the push to open access is not just another Internet plot to make everything free. Much of it is coming from academics, funders, librarians, and administrators. In the last year, the University of California dropped Elsevier rather than modify its open access policy or pay extra for the privilege of keeping it. Research consortia in Sweden, Germany, and Hungary have had similar disputes; a group of Norwegian institutions recently agreed to pay €9 million a year to cover access to Elsevier's journals and the publishing costs of its expected 2,000 articles.

What is slow to change is incentives within academia. Rising scholars are judged much as they were 50 years ago: how much have they published, and where? The conflict means that younger researchers whose work has immediate consequences find themselves forced to choose between prioritizing career management - via journal publication - or more immediately effective efforts such as training workshops and newspaper coverage to alert practitioners in the field of new problems and solutions. Choosing the latter may help tens of thousands of people - at a cost of a "You haven't published" stall to their careers. Equally difficult, today's structure of departments and journals is poorly suited for the increasing range of multi-, inter-, and trans-disciplinary research. Where such projects can find publication remains a conundrum.

All of that is without considering other misplaced or perverse incensitives in the present system: novel ideas struggle to emerge; replication largely does not happen or fails, and journal impact factors are overvalued. The Internet has opened up beneficial change: Ben Goldacre's COMPare project to identify dubious practices such as outcome switching and misreported findings, and the push to publish data sets; and preprint servers give much wider access to new work. It may not be all good; but it certainly isn't all bad.

Illustrations: A spherical cow jumping over the moon (via Wikimedia.

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.

December 28, 2018

Opening the source

Participants_at_Budapest_meeting,_December_1,_2001.jpegRecently, Michael Salmony, who has appeared here before appeared horrified to discover open access, the movement for publishing scientific research so it's freely accessible to the public (who usually paid for it) instead of closed to subscribers. In an email, he wrote, "...looks like the Internet is now going to destroy science as well".

This is not my view.

The idea about science that I grew up with was that scientists building on and reviewing each other's work is necessary for good science, a self-correcting process that depends on being able to critique and replicate each other's work. So the question we should ask is: does the business model of traditional publishing support that process? Are there other models that would support that process better? Science spawns businesses, serves businesses, and may even be a business itself, but good-quality science first serves the public interest.

There are three separate issues here. The first is the process of science itself: how best to fund, support, and nurture it. The second is the business model of scientific *publishing*. The third, which relates to both of those, is how to combat abuse. Obviously, they're interlinked.

The second of these is the one that resonates with copyright battles past. Salmony: "OA reminds me warmly of Napster disrupting music publishing, but in the end iTunes (another commercial, quality controlled) model has won."

iTunes and the music industry are not the right models. No one dies of lack of access to Lady Gaga's latest hit. People *have* died through being unable to afford access to published research.

Plus, the push is coming from an entirely different direction. Napster specifically and file-sharing generally were created by young, anti-establishment independents who coded copyright bypasses because they could. The open access movement began with a statement of principles codified by university research types - mavericks, sure, but representing the Public Library of Science, Open Society Institute, BioMed Central, and universities in Montreal, London, and Southampton. My first contact with the concept was circa 1993, when World Health Organization staffer Christopher Zielinski raised the deep injustice of pricing research access out of developing countries' reach.

Sci-Hub is a symptom, not a cause. Another symptom: several months ago, 60 German universities canceled their subscriptions to Elsevier journals to protest the high fees and restricted access. Many scientists are offended at the journals' expectation that they will write papers for free and donate their time for peer review while then charging them to read the published results. One way we know this is that Sci-Hub builds its giant cache via educational institution proxies that bypass the paywalls. At least some of these are donated by frustrated people inside those institutions. Many scientists use it.

As I understand it, publication costs are incorporated into research grants; there seems no reason why open access should impede peer review or indexing. Why shouldn't this become financially sustainable and assure assure quality control as before?

A more difficult issue is that one reason traditional journals still matter is that academic culture has internalized their importance in determining promotions and tenure. Building credibility takes time, and many universities have been slow to adapt. However, governments and research councils in Germany, the UK, and South Africa are all pushing open access policies via their grant-making conditions.

Plus, the old model is no longer logistically viable in many fields as the pace of change accelerates. Computer scientists were first to ignore it, relying instead on conference proceedings and trading papers and research online.

Back to Salmony: "Just replacing one bad model with another one that only allows authors who can afford to pay thousands of dollars (or is based on theft, like Sci Hub) and that threatens the quality (edited, peer review, indexed etc) sounds less than convincing." In this he's at odds with scientists such as Ben Goldacre, who in 2007 called open access "self-evidently right and good".

This is the first issue. In 1992, Marcel C. LaFollette's Stealing into Print: Fraud, Plagiarism, and Misconduct in Scientific Publishing documented many failures of traditional peer review. In 2010, the Greek researcher John Ioannidis established how often medical research is retracted. At Retraction Watch, science journalist Ivan Oransky finds remarkable endemic sloppiness and outright fraud. Admire the self-correction, but the reality is that journals have little interest in replication, preferring newsworthy new material - though not *too* new.

Ralph Merkle, the "third man", alongside Whit Diffie and Martin Hellman, inventing public key cryptography, has complained that journals favor safe, incremental steps. Merkle's cryptography idea was dismissed with: "There is nothing like this in the established literature." True. But it was crucial for enabling ecommerce.

Salmony's third point: "[Garbage] is the plague of the open Internet", adding a link to a Defon 26 talk. Sarah Jeong's Internet of Garbage applies.

Abuse and fakery are indeed rampant, but a lot is due to academic incentives. For several years, my 2014 article for IEEE Security & Privacy explaining the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act (2014) attracted invitations to speak at (probably) fake conferences and publish papers in (probably) fake journals. Real researchers tell me this is par for the course. But this is a problem of human predators, not "the open Internet", and certainly not open access.

Illustrations: Participants in drafting the Budapest principles (via Wikimedia).

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.

August 24, 2017

The greatest show on Earth

"Oh, yeah, I'm going down Broadway."
"Working. I'm going to try to get a peek at it out the window."
"I'm going up to Centennial Park. I want to be real quiet and meditative."
"Our hotel's having a viewing party on the roof."
"Just going out in my backyard."
"I've seen one befo-er. They happen all the time. If it wasn't for my grandkids, I'd just stay home."

The question, posed to random strangers around Nashville, was, "Do you have plans to see the eclipse?"

The last speaker, a woman at a bus stop, is of course right. Eclipses do happen all the time. But the Great American Eclipse of 2017 was the first total solar eclipse to hit Nashville since 1478, and it's 99 years since one cut such a long and wide swath across the US - a path 70 miles wide and 2,500 miles long, stretching from the west coast of Oregon to the east coast of South Carolina.
solar-eclipse-t-shirts-tiedye.jpgThis is the also the first one with 24-hour channels to provide major event packaging. I don't remember hearing a thing about the eclipse of February 1979, even though totality covered almost the entire giant state of Montana. The Weather Channel unearthed the ABC News report, which newscaster Frank Reynolds concluded by hoping that in 38 years, "May the shadow of the moon fall on a world at peace". (Ouch.) For hundreds of small towns, the path provided a once-in-a-lifetime bonanza of visitors. T-shirts for all! (A few places, like Carbondale, Illinois, will get a second bite in 2024.

An estimated 1 million people descended on Nashville. Kids got a day off school. Opryland hosted three days of special events. The baseball team invited 10,000 people into the stadium for a viewing party, then kicked everyone out to readmit ticket holders for the (big? hah!) game. The many, many rooftop viewing parties included one at the famed music bar Tootsie's Orchid Lounge, which reportedly charged $500 per person (including free drinks). The even more famous Bluebird café seemed unimpressed; for Monday's open mic night you still had to reserve online at noon. (As if.) They had nonetheless sold out at 2:30pm.

900px-SolarEclipseDiamondRing-corvallisOR-2017-08-21.jpgAfterwards, everyone had seen at least some part of "it". The most frustrated folks were the 8,000 people who had assembled at the Science Center. After clear skies all through the partial phases, a big, dark cloud occluded the show right before totality. "We didn't see the diamond ring, we didn't see the corona, we didn't see Baily's Beads," the on-site Weather Channel reporter lamented.

The bus stop woman was right - but she was also wrong. She'd probably only seen a partial eclipse. I now know that hardly anyone who has experienced totality - the seconds or minutes when the moon fully covers the sun - says "They happen all the time." They say, "Where and when?"

solar-eclipse-discarding-images.jpgIn 1999, when totality passed over Cornwall on its way to northern Europe, I was surprised to hear the astronomy writer Ian Ridpath say he'd been awaiting it since childhood. But in southwest London, even at 90ish% the dimming light had a glassy, almost sepia tone, and the atavistic thought, "What if it doesn't come back?" was unavoidable. Seeing just that much created an immediate sense of direct emotional connection to our ancestors, from medieval peasants to the ancient Sumerians, and their terror at not knowing what was happening. Legends from the earliest recorded solar eclipse, in China around 2000 B.C., have the emperor ordering the astronomers executed.

Here in 2017, we know. In Centennial Park, I recruited Pete, a passing retired Ohio journalist, to watch with me because I liked his eclipse T-shirt. He noted the absurdity of newscasters who cautiously said "expected at", as if the eclipse were a murder suspect whose mention required "alleged". Totality would arrive at 13:27. Were they suggesting there was mathematical doubt about this?

A few minutes after noon a cheer went up: the first chip in the sun was visible.

pete-shirt-cropped.jpgThe changes in the light are slow and subtle at first, as is the temperature drop, later reported as 6 degrees (Fahrenheit). In modern life, the first clear signs are often street lights coming on, as did those behind the Parthenon's columns. Having seen it once, the 90% level was instantly recognizable. The final phases happen fast. We saw all the things the Science Center folks missed, despite the late-arriving distraction of four people with a small dog who set up nearby with 15 minutes to go. They lit incense, and produced a large, native-looking drum, and proceeded to beat it throughout totality. Did they think their activity was crucial in ensuring that the sun re-emerged at full strength? Neither moon nor sun nor annoyance intervened to prevent the sun's return to normal, on time and under budget.

The agnostics, atheists, and skeptics among us may see all this as a persuasive display of science: it happened when and where scientists predicted, with flawless accuracy. But...

"Did you see it?" Replied one last accosted stranger: "It's amazing what God can do."

Illustrations: The waiting audience by the Nashville Parthenon; Solar eclipse (Thomas of Cantimpré, Liber de natura rerum, France ca. 1290; Valenciennes, Bibliothèque municipale, ms. 320, fol. 196v, via Discarding Images); eclipse T-shirts; the diamond ring effect (via Wikimedia from Tuanna2010 in Corvallis, Oregon; Nashville eclipse T-shirt.

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.