The Boston Globe has a piece on the open-source science movement. Many readers here will have come across the idea before, but it’s interesting to see it make a large newspaper. (Admittedly, the Globe is more likely to cover this sort of thing than most metropolitan dailies, given the concentration of research jobs around here).
The idea, as in open-source software development, is that everything is out in a common area for everyone to see and work on. (Here's one of the biggest examples). Ideas can come from all over, and with progress coming more quickly as many different approaches get proposed, debated, and tried out. I like the idea, in theory. Of course, since I work in industry, it’s a nonstarter. I have absolutely no idea of how you’d reconcile that model with profitable intellectual property rights, and I haven’t seen any scheme yet that makes me want to abandon profit-making IP as the driver of commercial science. Of course, there's always the prize model, which is worth taking seriously. . .
Even for academic science, open source work runs right into the traditional ideas of priority and credit, and the article doesn’t resolve this dilemma. (As far as I can tell, the open-source science advocates haven’t completely resolved it, either). There’s always the lingering (or not-so-lingering) worry about someone scooping your results, and for academia there’s always that little question of grant applications. There have been enough accusations over the years in various fields of people lifting ideas during grant proposal reviews or journal refereeing to make you wonder how well a broader open-source system would work out, given the small but significant number of unscrupulous people out there.
On the other hand, maybe if things were more open in general, there would be less incentive to lift ideas, since the opportunities to do so wouldn’t be so rare. And if someone’s name is associated from the beginning with a given idea, on some open forum, it could make questions of priority easier to resolve. A subsidiary problem, though, is that there are people who are better at generating ideas than executing them – some of these folks, once unchained, could end up with their fingerprints on all sorts of things that they’ve never gotten around to enabling. Of course, that might be a feature rather than a bug: people who generate lots of ideas are, after all, worth having around. And over time, there might well be less of a stigma than there is now for someone else to follow up on these things.
The thing is, science has already been a form of open-source work for hundreds of years now. It’s just that the information has been shared at a later stage, though presentations and publications, rather than being put out there right after it’s been thought up or while it’s being generated. That’s why I always shiver a bit when I read about how long Isaac Newton waited before writing up any of his results – if Edmund Halley hadn’t pressed him to do it, he might never have gotten around to it at all, which would have been a terrible tragedy.
And it’s why stories like those told of physicist Lars Onsager strike me as somehow wrong. Onsager was famous for only publishing his absolute best work – which was pretty damned good – and putting the rest into his copious file cabinets (example here). (A related trait was that he was also apparently incapable of lecturing at any comprehensible level about his work). Supposedly, younger colleagues would come by once in a while and tell him about some interesting thing that they’d worked out, and ask him if he thought it was correct. Onsager would pause, dig through his files, pull out some old unpublished work that the new person had unknowing duplicated, and say “Yes, that’s correct”. It seems to me that you don’t want to do that, withholding potentially useful results for the sake of what is, in the end, a form of vanity.
And although I'm not exactly Lars Onsager, this is as good a time as any to mention that my summer student, who’s finishing up in the lab this week, has been able to generate a lot of interesting data, and that I’m going to be trying to write it up this fall for publication. Readers may be interested to know that this work is based on more ideas I’ve had in the vein of the “Vial Thirty-Three” project detailed here, so with any luck, people will eventually be able to see some of what I’ve been so excited about all this time. And that’s about as open-source as this industrial scientist can get!