Costs of Openness

Tim Boykett

This is a collection of notes about some thoughts on openness as a way of working, living and acting. The summary might be that openness is about conversations, about being able to discuss things, about not sticking to your guns about taste, correctness, relevance and all that, but about building communities of sharing, caring and being able to correct one another’s mistakes. Maybe openness is a state, not a statement; a process, not a proclamation.

We do not do copyright every well at Time’s Up: “Copyright is problematic. Contact for clarification” or something similar is at the bottom of many of our web pages. We do not think we can make a single licence statement that will work. We would like to talk to people and organisations about what they would like to do with the images, the texts, the audio files. We were surprised when a huge image from our work was used to announce the application for Linz to become the European Capital of Culture, without asking us. It is nice to be so appreciated that we are a beacon of Linz culture, but we ask you to talk to us. A licence is possibly a way to avoid talking to one another, openness is perhaps about encouraging us to talk, to think, to share and communicate, not just announce.

Open academic publishing allows too much nonsense and badly written yet often useful stuff to get out. Peer review does not stop this, but quality reviewing does. This is a discussion between the author(s) and someone who cares. A reviewer is a peer who should care. If one is asked to be a reviewer, it is bound up with some work and some responsibility. It is not a job of letting your friends in and keeping your foes out. It is a job and responsibility, one of the rights and responsibilities that comes along with the context of being part of the academic or research community. It is possible to say “either this is badly written, or I do not care enough about it to develop an opinion” as a way to pass on the chalice. If no reviewer can be found who cares about the work, then perhaps no one cares about it at all and perhaps it is not worth publishing. Peer review means that the question of “who are your peers?” needs to be answered. Who are they really? Who cares? This is not about advertising or selling your work, about making people care, but about finding out who does. I do not have the right to demand that you care about my work. You cannot keep up with all the things that you might be interested in, so unless you can trust that I have made something that you care about, why would you bother looking at it?

Less is more. Fewer things to sort through. We have too many books, publications, articles, white papers, etc, etc: how to find what we need, let people know about what we do. We in the sense of all the communities I am involved in, from Time’s Up through the universities, the research communities, the cultural communities and the world in general. Not all forms of openness can help that, many will harm it.

Patents only help if you want to “exploit” the invention. If you just care about doing interesting things, then being first is enough. Or even just doing it. Patents have that secondary effect, that once the idea is patented, we can all see how it works. So Patents are opening and closing: I know how it works, but I cannot copy it commercially. Like open source software: I was surprised to learn that commercial programmers are not allowed to look at how something is coded in open source software, in case they accidentally copy the programming technique. So for them, making it open closes it. There is, of course, the danger of reinventing the wheel (we have done that), wasted effort, dead-end developments. That’s fine. In the long run, we are all dead and all the effort was futile. But in the meantime, let’s keep it interesting. Let’s share ideas and experiences and find communities to be involved in.

Open acknowledges mistakes and wrong directions. But we don’t need to proclaim them: the reason there is little interest in the “Journal of Negative Results” is that failure often just means “I cannot see how to do this” rather than the implied, or even believed “this cannot happen.” Mathematics is a great place to investigate this. A naive mathematician will say that something is obvious because they cannot imagine why it cannot be true (and will use that as an argument!). This might often be true, but it is not an argument. This is an enunciation of “common sense” or “intuition” and mathematics is a machine for breaking intuition. By doing the details, you might find out why the statement is false. Or why it is true, not just because there is no option, but because of something more interesting and useful. Mathematics is about this openness in all its horrible, gory, intricate detail. A mathematical paper is filled with long proofs because these are the things that interrupt or confirm beliefs, hopes, steps to results that are interesting. Openness here means that I open up my mind and show you not only that I can do this thing, but how I do it, so that you know that each time I do it, the answer is true. And thus you can do it too. It is open and open.

In order to be relevant, mathematics needs two things: to be true and to be interesting. One of the downsides of open publishing is that spotting the interesting becomes harder, because there are no gatekeepers who polish, edit, review and perhaps reject the ugly dross. We have to use coding as a gatekeeper. Spotting references to Einstein, especially how he is wrong, lets us know that a physics paper is probably pseudoscience. The formatting of LaTeX as an indicator of seriousness, Microsoft Word as a sign of an enthusiastic but probably misguided amateur. But these codes are false, and occasionally as false as James Lovelock’s issues with scientific publishing from outside an institution: because his address was not a university or company, journals rejected his papers. Discussions were had and his papers were accepted, but it was more effort, there was a gatekeeper that was using inappropriate codes.

Openness has so many other branches. Money earnt, work done, distractions allowed. In collective work, we often agree upon a “basic wage” and share the work equally, something like from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs. But how many innovators are independently wealthy and don’t really need any financial help? How many have artists have a side job as advertisers or share brokers? Drunken writers write about drinking, not about what they do to actually pay the bar tab and postage for their manuscripts. Academics have tenure to allow them to undertake long projects. Or stay at home. Or start a business. Or hide, tutor school kids, write a science communication novel or a million other things. Are these distractions, or are they desired tangential outcomes? Do we need transparency here to know what is going on? Or does that break trust? How much box-ticking and metric analysis is needed to ensure that “public monies” are being correctly spent on science, humanities, culture and the arts? Are the numerical results of bums on seats and webpage views actually useful, or is that just another coded gatekeeper? If you can get through the dross of the application, then you are serious enough to be able to make it happen.

Perhaps transparency breaks trust. Perhaps openness creates not just abundance but waste. In the sense of “There’s no such thing as waste, just stuff in the wrong place.” It is probably worth keeping a lot of things out of the public eye, of not sharing every little detail on a blog or a series of explanations of your theory of everything, or your theory of everything else. Who are your peers, who are your colleagues? If you have a question or a new idea, formulate it properly. You might find the answer yourself while formulating it (Oh, that’s what I meant!), you might realise that the idea breaks once it is communicated or becomes trivial (Ah, there are none of those to worry about). Then talk to your colleagues, your community, the people who know you and can help get over the first hurdles. Only then is it worth taking your idea to a larger group, your peers. StackExchange and other places are filled with comments that a given question is a duplicate of a given question, that the questioner is wasting time and space by not doing their research. If I want you to invest time in reading my question, you need to trust me that I have bothered answering the question already. That I have looked in all the normal places, tried the standard solutions. If I want to revolutionise gender theory, then I need to have read enough background, not just thought about it a bit and been excited by an idea.

Paul Erdos is an acclaimed mathematician, who would arrive with the statement “my brain is open” and work with colleagues on problems before travelling onwards to the next stop on his never ending journey. This openness led to him being the most published mathematician in history. His case is rare. The web is filled with examples of extremely smart, well-meaning people sharing their complex and intricate examinations of ways to improve the world, from engineering systems science analyses of climate issues to disaster relief planning. However, the absolute openness of their sharing means that every idea that crosses their well-fed minds gets deposited in the collection, pages of PDFs, hundreds of blog posts, hours of video lectures: too much! It is said that mathematicians are cheap. They require paper, pens and a large wastepaper basket. This process of disposal, of winnowing out the dross and keeping the good stuff, is the core of good work. If only I would learn that myself.