A Setback for Open Science?

Theral Timpson

"Open Science" took a real walloping this week. First, Gina Kolata from the New York Times published an article exposing the increasingly predatory nature of open access journals. Then, Evegeny Mosorov, author of The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom, published an essay over at The Baffler that quite deconstructs the "open source" movement along with the guy who created it, conference producer Tim O Reilly. And Tuesday, we heard that Mendeley, a portal that opens up access to scientific research is to be bought out by the publishing giant, Reed Elsevier for about $70 million, a move that one commenter compared to "Haliburton buying Green Peace."

I was introduced to the open science movement by Joseph Jackson, organizer of the Open Science Summit. My first question was how would business models even function in an environment of giving things away for free. I’ve always been leary of such offers. Everything comes at a price. “It’s free as in freedom, not free beer,” Joseph was quick to tell me at a the conference pre-reception held at his DIY bio lab in Sunnyvale where he handed out . . . . free beer.

Who can argue with “open?” It’s such a great term, as Mosorov argues in his essay. It's a big tent that can house a large crowd. Going to Jackson’s conferences, I’ve got to know that crowd a bit. The open access movement seems to be at the core of open science, and is certainly not without its appeal. What scientist doesn’t want free access to all the research that exists in a field? In our first video interview, we had Jonathan Eisen to the program just after he won the Benjamin Franklin award for open science. He’s the managing editor of one of the PLoS journals and brother to the co-foudner of the pioneering open access publication, Michael Eisen. When we interviewed Jonathan, he’d just uploaded all his dad’s research papers to Mendeley. Why? So anyone could read them. And for free. To the Eisen brothers, "paywall" is an evil term.

The Mendeley site had just gone live when we began Mendelspod. With a name so close to our own, they must be up to something good, and I signed up for their webinar. Naturally, my question during the training was how do you deal with copyright issues. The answer came back by the host of the event, William Gunn, Head of Academic Outreach for Mendeley. He said that scientists are allowed to post their own papers online without violating any publication agreements. Mendeley had some 90 million papers up. If enough scientists shared their papers, one could find what one was looking for, and best of all, for free. And there were no copyright issues.

Surely, I thought, the major publishing houses won’t sit by and let this happen. I watched for lawsuits. None to my knowledge. This week Elseveir made their move. You know what they say: if you can’t knock ‘em, join ‘em. Or make them join you with a sweet enough prize. Will Elseveir drastically change the model for Mendeley, we are all wondering. They certainly have the power to do so now.

What about the scientists out there who have been using Mendeley to get better access to the research they seek? Mendeley was thought to present a whole new world of possibilities for academic publishing, and excitingly, for exploring alternate ways of measuring a publication's importance--what has become known as altmetrics. Another line Jackson uses: "knowledge wants to be free." It’s a nice thought that reflects the utopianism of the open science movement’s strongest adherents. Personifying knowledge makes it more sympathetic. Makes it somehow part of a moral world. Knowledge should be free as humans are free. There’s a democratic, equality aspect to the movement. It is tempting for scientists--scientia is Latin for knowledge- to believe that the internet can make the world a better place where knowledge is free and convenient. Just search the Twitter hashtag #mendelete and you’ll find tweets by many scientists who have committed to delete their Mendeley accounts and boycott Elsevier.

The open access movement has recently been gaining steam. “This whole thing just is hard to believe given the boycott of Elsevier only a year ago and the White House finally extending open access across all federal agencies,” wrote Jackson in an email last night. He’s speaking of a boycott by over 7,500 researchers of the publishing giant over a year ago. The move by the White House that Jackson mentions and a move later in the year by the UK government to commit 10 million pounds to help universities make their research openly available reveals the scale that open access has achieved.

So is the Mendeley buyout a setback for the movement? William Gunn of Mendeley has been one of the most morally outraged and vocal of the open science folks in the Bay Area. Yet for the past couple days he’s been backpedaling tirelessly, tweeting nonstop to comfort their users. In his blog he coaxes:

“I do think there’s a possibility that we could do some good as part of Elsevier. Having talked with tons of people, from the CEO of Elsevier on down, I am now convinced that they want to be a part of the changes, instead of trying to fight them off like the recording companies did.”

Does his heart bleed beneath the surface? In what really is an apologia, Gunn writes that he’s “not personally getting a pile of money from all this,” and that he’ll be staying on.

Jackson says it was “pretty obvious that Mendeley was going to do whatever it takes to satisfy the investors who backed them and are pressuring for an exit. Since an IPO isn't a realistic option for this kind of start up...acquisition is the only endpoint.”

To understand what’s really at stake here, I recommend Mosorov’s take down of Tim O’Reilly and the "open" meme in an article, The Meme Hustler. This is about as good a deconstruction of the "open" movements (open source in this case) that I’ve read. Mosorov’s approach is to look at the history of language in parallel with the rise of Tim O’Reilly, the philosopher turned entrepreneur, CEO of O’Reilly Media, publisher of books and producer of the popular tech conferences. The other epithet Mosorov uses for the subject of his biting prose is “master of meme-engineering.” O'Reilly's first great meme was that of “open source." Begun originally as a free software movement by Richard Stallman, the movement was hijacked by O’Reilly under the more ambiguous and therefore valuable term, “open source.”

“ . . .“Open” allowed O’Reilly to build the largest possible tent for the movement. The language of economics was less alienating than Stallman’s language of ethics; “openness” was the kind of multipurpose term that allowed one to look political while advancing an agenda that had very little to do with politics. As O’Reilly put it in 2010, “the art of promoting openness is not to make it a moral crusade, but rather to highlight the competitive advantages of openness.” Replace “openness” with any other loaded term—say “human rights”—in this sentence, and it becomes clear that this quest for “openness” was politically toothless from the very outset. What, after all, if your interlocutor doesn’t give a damn about competitive advantages?”

As the director of the movement, O’Reilly stood in the best place to gain from his meme. And by producing books and conferences that are rewriting the history of the internet, he maintains this position. In one example, Mosorov points out that a Wikipedia article on "open source" might be seen as objective. Yet O'Reilly admitted to being the editor of the article. Isn't this something along the lines of “history is written by the victors?” Mosorov finds a promiscuousness at work here where O’Reilly used parts of Stallman's free software movement, which originally cared more about the users having access, to create something that was better for developers, users be damned.

It’s a dark view to think that the founders of Mendeley and other similar companies use “open” in this "promiscuous" way. That they attracted scientists with their open platforms, only to turn around and cash in and leave the users hanging. In this case, "open," is another marketing tool. Mosorov calls O’Reilly a PR and marketing genius. One who--far from naive--began in philosophy and the study of semantics. One who seizes on a meme of value and rebrands it for marketing purposes.

How will Elseveir relate to the “open” meme? So far Mendeley has used a "freemium" model. Is there a way to have your cake and eat it to? To open up and keep the platform as users expect it and still protect copyright profits for Elsevier's shareholders? Jackson again: “Elsevier ... has an atrocious reputation and is more like Microsoft buying up an open competitor to subvert it, which they often did under the doctrine of Embrace, Extend, Extinguish...to use a phrase that came to light from internal documents disclosed during the anti trust case the government successful prosecuted them for back in the "browser wars."”

Another blogger wondered whether the data that comes with a site such as Mendeley will be providing the value for the large corporate overtaker, enough value to enable them to keep the platform as it is. As more and more of our lives are moved online, the value is captured at the back end rather than the front. "The idea of my reading behaviors adding economic value to a company making huge profits by locking scholarship behind increasingly expensive paywalls is, in a word, repugnant", the blogger writes.

I’ve always thought the answer to open science was in the marriage of creative new legal agreements to the opportunities the internet provides for sharing. One of my favorite companies is <a href'"https://www.collaborativedrug.com" target="_blank">Collaborative Drug Discovery which provides a platform for drug developers to share their data in new ways. Through various permissions, users are able to share with each other in a more open, yet precise manner. There is convenience and ease, and most importantly, the company assures, security. In our interview with company CEO, Barry Bunin, he says CDD widens the spectrum between open and closed to the “infinite” possibilities in between.

What will the future of open science look like? Jackson is the one who sent me the Mosorov article. So I turned it back on him asking whether he has seen O’Reilly as a model for his work. He admitted that in some ways he had, but that not everything translated over to the world of life science as it did in tech. He didn’t say whether he considered the Mendeley buyout a setback for the movement and if he thought the buyout path will be the one taken by others. He did write his response to the New York Times article by Gina Kolata exposing the increasing number of predatory open access journals.

"I don't see it as much of an issue. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery the expression goes. With success, knock offs always spring up by the dozens. This is a part of the economy...nothing unique to Open Access. Think of all the hype around Edu-Tech and the future of education start ups right now. We had a brief wave of this already in the 1990s, leading to such enterprises as the University of Phoenix, which is a bit of a scam. Well, as a "proud" Harvard grad, I can tell you Harvard is also a scam in some ways. It isn't the end of the world (to have crappy online degrees) and it doesn't threaten the online education or Open Access providers who are creating real new value. There are always a lot of low quality imitators in any sector you look at."

I'll wrap up with some tweets: @neuromusic wrote: “Dear #mendelete-ers, did you forget that the "if not paying for it, you're the product" mantra applies to COMPANIES like Mendeley, too?” A tweet the other night from John Wilbanks @wilbanks, a popular speaker at open science events who headed up the open access petition to the White House, read: “I do use twitter, FB, the goog, etc. but I fully expect them to screw me if it's in their interest. That's the deal. Eyes open, people.” Another Wilbanks tweet: “Companies don't exist for social benefit. If their managers don't maximize shareholder value they get replaced.” Wilbank’s tweets sound bitter for one who has taken it on himself to get all government agencies publishing the research they fund in open access. He didn’t sound so cold when he was tweeting about the petition. Wilbanks also began in philosophy. Does his heart not bleed a little too?

I remember when Huff Post sold to AOL, the backlash and lawsuits that came from many of the bloggers. They had given their articles free and wanted some kind of remuneration if the site was going to go the direction of large corporate profits. We see in the "open" movements the conflicting currents of "free enterprise" on the one hand and "freedom for all" on the other. That Tim O'Reilly has used the promise of the latter to build up the former is Mosorov's argument. Last year, we produced a series of programs where open science is seen as the solution to problems facing the life science industry, from various big pharma companies sharing data to the speeding up of research through greater access. In one interview, Mendeley's own Mr. Gunn shares his vision for the future of publishing to be one where "there are as many journals as there are researchers." In the interview he sounds hopeful and excited to be disrupting the old print technology. I looked forward to another interview with Gunn on the new field of altmetrics. Will the Mendeley team remain innovative?

It does seem right to say congratulations to Gunn and the founders of Mendeley. They seized opportunity. They built the business from nothing up to a nice payout. But, did they sell out?