Monday 8 December 2008

Wilbanks on the Control Fallacy: How Radical Sharing out-competes

Closing the first day of the International Digital Curation Conference, and as a prelude to a substantial audience discussion, John Wilbanks from Science Commons outlined his vision and his group’s plans and achievements. His slides are available on Slideshare and from the IDCC web site.

John suggests that the only real alternative to radical sharing is inefficient sharing! Science (research and scholarship, to be more general) is in a way not unlike a giant Wikipedia, an ever-changing consensus machine, based on publishing (disclosing, making things public); advances by individual action, and by discrete edits (ie small changes to the body of research represented by individual research contributions). Unlike Wikipedia the Science consensus machine is slow and expensive, but it does have strong authentication and trust. It represents an “inefficient and expensive ecosystem of processes to peer-produce and review scholarly content”.

However, disruptive processes can’t be planned for, and when they occur, attract opposition from entrenched interests (open access is one such disruptive system). So a scholarly paper may be thought of as “an advertisement for years of scholarship” (I think he gave a reference but I can’t find it). International research forms a highly stable system, good at resisting change on multiple levels, and in many cases this is a Good Thing. This system includes Copyright (Wilbanks suggested IPR was an unpopular term, new to me but perhaps a US perspective); traditionally, in the analogue world, copyright locks up the container, not the facts. New publishing business models lock up even more rights on “rented” information. If we can deposit our own articles (estimated cost 40 minutes per researcher per year), then we can add further services over our own material (individually or collectively), including tracking use and re-use; then we can out-compete the non-sharers.

Science Commons has been working for the past 2 years focusing their efforts in both the particular (one research domain, building the Neurocommons) and the general; their approach requires sharing. They discovered two things quite early on: first that international rules on intellectual property in data vary so widely that building a general data licence to parallel the Creative Commons licences for text was near impossible, and second that viral licences (like the Creative Commons Share-Alike licences, and the GPL) act against sharing, since content under different viral licences cannot be mixed. So their plan is to try putting their data into the public domain as the most free approach. They use a protocol (not licence) for implementing open data. reward comes through trademark, badging as part of the same “tribe”. Enforcement doesn’t apply; community norms rule, as they do in other areas of scholarly publishing. For example attribution is a legal term of art (!!), but in scholarly publishing we prefer the use of citations to acknowledge sources, with the alternative for an author being possible accusations of plagiarism, rather than legal action (in most cases).

There was some more, on the specifics of their projects, on trying to get support in ‘omics areas for a semantic web of linked concepts, built around simple, freely alterable ontologies; how doing this will help Google Scholar rank papers better. Well worth a look at the slides (worth while anyway, since I may well have got some of this wrong!). But Wilbanks ended with a resounding rallying cry: Turn those locks into gears! Don’t wait, start now.


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