opensourcescience

Photo by Sidney Perry on Unsplash

Open Source Science

Science, my friends, is in serious crisis.

No, not the scientific method, per se, or the sanctity of science.  But the way science is pursued; the way it’s funded.  The business of science.

That, and the isolated, elitist, and reductionist nature that science — when operated as a for-profit business — morphs into.

For science to remain pure, it must first and foremost be concerned not with “being right”, but about constantly seeking the truth.  And in that environment, once held sacred cows must be sacrificed once it is found that they obfuscate the truth in any way.

But men — and even more so, institutions — are reluctant to change, even in light of overwhelming evidence to do so.

As Upton Sinclair so famously noted:

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

And that effect is many times magnified once business, institutions and organizational interests become enmeshed in the process.

To wit: consider the reluctance of the American Heart Association and the American Diabetes Association to change course in the light of overwhelming evidence that their dietary recommendations are perpetuating the very diseases they pledge to eradicate.

Slaughtering the ol’ cash cow simply does not make business sense.  For large, entrenched, and immobile institutions, it’s far better (for the bottom line) to defend the “wrong” rather than embrace the “truth”.

Below I’ll examine one significant part of the hamstringing of science: the collection, publication, and distribution of scientific knowledge.

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The Highly-Profitable Business of Scientific Publication

News flash, my science-loving tribe: the publication of peer-reviewed science is an insanely profitable business.  In fact, it’s far and away the most profitable business in publishing.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: niche market, narrow readership, limited distribution… how in the hell can that make for a profitable business model?

The reality, though, is that it’s a can’t miss proposition for the publisher, the biggest player in this realm being Elsevier.

In fact, last year Elsevier quietly operated at an astonishing 36% margin. That’s better than Apple, better than Google, and even better than Amazon reported for the year.  And in another stratosphere entirely as compared to traditional magazine publishing, which squeaks by on margins of between 12 and 15%.

So how in the hell does Elsevier pull this off?   Quite simply by dodging most costs associated with traditional publishing, and by having established a near monopoly within a targeted and captive demographic.

In essence, they’ve secured ready access to an enthusiastic pool of labor and expertise that not only comes to them free of charge, but inundates them with requests to donate said labor and expertise.

Pretty sweet deal by any standard.  Unheard of, in fact, in traditional business.

In this model, scientists produce work under their own direction, and as funded (which is an altogether separate and dubious issue; one covered expertly by Paleo f(x)™ alum, Dr. Andy Galpin, here) by outside government, agencies or corporations.

The finished product (often years in the making) is then dropped onto the publisher’s lap for free.

Screen Shot 2017 07 01 at 9.31.09 AM

Illustration: Dom McKenzie

Pretty sweet deal if you can get it, right?

The publisher then only need contract scientific editors to judge the submission’s worthiness and, if need be, spruces the work a bit for publication.  The bulk of the editorial heavy-lifting, however — the verification of scientific validity, experiment evaluation, etc. — is placed squarely on the shoulders of an external “volunteer army” via the coveted scientific process known as peer review.

The publishers then sell the finished product back to government (or privately)-funded institutional and university libraries, to be read by the same scientists who, in a collective sense, created the product in the first place.

That, my friends, is one hell of a business model.

As stated by The Guardian in their exhaustive June, 2017 article, Is the staggeringly profitable business of scientific publishing bad for science?

“It is as if the New Yorker or the Economist demanded that journalists write and edit each other’s work for free, and asked the government to foot the bill. Outside observers tend to fall into a sort of stunned disbelief when describing this setup. A 2004 parliamentary science and technology committee report on the industry drily observed that “in a traditional market suppliers are paid for the goods they provide”. A 2005 Deutsche Bank report referred to it as a “bizarre” “triple-pay” system, in which “the state funds most research, pays the salaries of most of those checking the quality of research, and then buys most of the published product”.

Bizarre indeed.

Now I’ll admit that the entrepreneur in me appreciates (envies?) the savvy of identifying, massaging, then exploiting a niche that, quite frankly, was ripe for exploiting in the first place.

But the change-the-world biohacker and citizen scientist in me, however, is utterly appalled at this situation.

If it’s true, as I claim, that reclaiming sovereignty over one’s own health is the first act of outright political rebellion in today’s economic landscape, then championing open-source / free-access science is a molotov cocktail lobbed directly into the prevailing gaiety of the establishment’s summer garden party.

And I say, let that fucker burn.

“It had long since come to my attention that people of accomplishment rarely sat back and let things happen to them. They went out and happened to things.”

― Leonardo da Vinci

The Archimedes lever that just might topple the old-guard

As I’ve written about prior, the very idea that collectively-funded scientific research should be freely available to anyone is a sharp departure, even an overt threat, to the current system.

In recent years, the most radical opposition to the establishment’s unlimited control of scientific knowledge — and, by extension, the ability to direct, and even maintain arbitrary cross-disciplinary division — has coalesced around the controversial, Napster-for-science website, Sci-Hub, whose creator, Alexandra Elbakyan, is in Julian Assange-like hiding, facing charges of hacking and copyright infringement.

More on Alexandria’s incredible story, here.  I don’t know about you, but in my book, she’s a goddamn hero.

Whatever the ultimate fate of Sci-Hub, though, the frustration with the current system is not going away. And it’s unlikely that biohacking citizen scientists — who come to this fight armed with an intrinsic hacker community ethos — will be appeased with any half-measure compromises that the establishment is likely to propose.

That the internet is the greatest democratization tool since the printing press allows for citizens of the world to now demand complete and immediate transparency, especially in the information that they are coerced (via taxation) to pay for in its very creation.  Progress here may be slowed but, like the cut of water through rock, it can never be stopped.

I suppose the prevailing question here is this: do we, as a free, democratic, and self-determined people, want a quarterly-driven, beholden-to-shareholders, near monopoly to act as gatekeeper and warden to such vast amounts of knowledge and discovery?

And, too, do we trust this entity to hold such sway in determining the future focus of our scientific endeavors?

So that’s just some of my own commentary on what The Guardian so expertly covered in full, here.  It’s a highly recommended read.

Heal thyself, harden thyself, change the world –

Keith

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