Open Science, Open World

I was recently browsing a British blog called Science in the open, by Cameron Neylon, which is described as “An openwetware blog on the challenges of open and connected science.” I wasn’t sure how relevant this would be to me, but I quickly discovered that many of the openness issues facing the scientific community are similar to (or deeply related to) issues in the rest of the world of information.

I was particularly drawn to these recent posts: 

In one called My Bad…or how far should the open mindset go? the author asks the people in this community to be consistent with their views, not advocate open usage right up to the point where their data, content, image is used in some way that they don’t agree with. This is a tricky issue, and I’m not sure where I stand, but it raises an interesting question: are the desires for open information and desires for control of copyrighted materials fundamentally in conflict with each other? 

There was a followup to this post today, called More on “theft” and the problem of identity, which specifically addresses related issues of plagiarism, trust networks and online identity. Neylon presents a clear, well thought out argument explaining why even the misuse of one’s online identity isn’t a justification for copyright legislation: “The problem is not the act of copying but the act of lying.” And, ultimately, more good comes from an open online presence than from trying to lock it down. 

An earlier post called What Russel Brand and Jonathan Ross can teach us about the value of community norms immediately caught my eye because I’m a big fan of Russell Brand and, even though I’m American, I had read about this incident with interest, and even listened to a good portion of the offending radio program. What I found interesting in this post were sections like the following:

“Much of the media and public outcry has been of the type ‘there must be some law, or if not some BBC rule that must have been broken, bang them up!’ There is a sense that there can only be recourse if someone has broken a rule. This is quite similar to the sense amongst many researchers, that they will only be able to ‘protect’ the results they make public by making them available under an explicit licence. “

Neylon goes on to discuss the challenges of trying to uphold licenses of any kind, but also the tendancy of any of our current licenses to render ideas, discoveries, materials, and data unusable. You may say “Yes, that’s the idea of a license,” but in the scientific world real, tangible benefits could be had from sharing research results with the wider world. The issue is more related to the realm of open source software or hardware than it is to the world of entertainment, but the author uses the Brand/Ross incident to make some interesting comparisons, as pertains to Rule Enforcement vs. Community Norms.

Personally, I prefer for the debate to be about Rule Enforcement vs. Personal Responsibility.  But if people can’t behave responsibly (and I’m not saying, in this case, that I think Brand & Ross were irresponsible, though perhaps they were), then I guess having the community try to hold people to a certain standard of behavior is the next best thing. In the digital age, though, are communities too spread out to be able to effectively police themselves?

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