Philosophy : Freedom of scientific information

7 01 2009

“Information wants to be free, and information wants to be expensive… If you cling blindly to the expensive part of the paradox, you miss all the action going on in the free part.”

-Stewart Brand

This description of information’s value has had a pervasive impact on computer, business and popular culture in the past two decades. Variations on this idea sculpt a diverse group of practical and legal philosophies. In the computer industry, this idea is central to the rise (and sometimes fall) of Napster, mp3.com, Google, Facebook, and Linux. More generally, it is relevant to software patents, generic drug manufacturing, cryptography, open-access scientific publishing, even transparency of financial bailouts. The primacy of information dissemination over farming or manufacturing defines our current economic era as the Information Age. This primacy is particularly relevant to scientific research. The paradox between information’s cheap and expensive duality restricts the professional interactions of scientists. Restructuring this paradigm to a more open sharing of information will increase the pace of scientific progress and should be beneficial to adopters.

Information is the sole currency of academic scientific research. Evaluation of scientific performance is based on the number of papers published, the impact factor of the medium they are published in, and the times they have been referenced by subsequent papers. In turn, these are dependent on the quality of information produced by a researcher’s experiments. The experimental quality is based on the insight of the hypothesis, and the creativity and rigor of method used to test the hypothesis.

A common refrain amongst academic scientists is that “Ideas are cheap”. The implementation of ideas is said to be the expensive part. Yet good ideas are often carefully guarded.

How are good ideas disseminated? Most formally, this information transfer takes place through the publication of completed work in scientific journals. Supplemental to this are oral presentations in talk or poster format at conferences and invited lectures across campuses. In these formats, the transfer is flat. Each listener has the same opportunity to pluck jewels of insight from the presentation. However, given the broad distribution, this method of information flow provides little competitive advantage. The most expensive ideas are saved for trade on the secondary idea market.

The secondary market is the dinner or bar conversations following talks and at conferences where tidbits of unpublished information are informally bartered between small groups of scientists. Plans for upcoming research, negative data, dirty little secrets, and collaborative possibilities are the dominant topics of conversation. Generally, information flows upwards. Graduate students seeking validation, feedback, and the chance to impress successful faculty liberally deliver their best thoughts to the top tier. So it goes with post-docs as well. Top tier faculty, by virtue of their position, get exposed to the broadest set of ideas, prescreened for quality.

What people do with this information depends largely on personality and resources. Some collect and horde information, others reciprocate with info of their own, others evangelize their own perspective. Some will immediately start a project competing with the giver. More commonly, publication of any competing work will be rushed, while others may be inhibited from starting work on the idea so as not to interfere with claimed territory.

The argument that ideas are of the most value to society when they are distributed broadly is self-evident. A broad distribution allows the most capable members of society to capitalize on them. This has been illustrated numerous times through the arc of technical innovation in the Information Age. Why then do scientists limit the exchange of the most valuable information to the smallest and most selective of groups?

The argument that broad distribution of a novel idea is beneficial to its originator is more nuanced. Instinctively, the value of an idea feels tied to its exclusivity. In science, the value is dependent on the ability of the holder to quickly exploit that idea in to a publishable form and get credit for it. Therein lies the rub for the graduate student and post-doc. We have limited hands and time to turn our ideas into results. By the time we get to a faculty level, the ideas we have been incubating may have already hatched in other labs. Having an exclusive idea provides little value until we can command a team to develop it.

What if we shift the paradigm, by giving away our best ideas publicly, to everyone? Perhaps someone else will take the idea, execute it, and scoop us. Perhaps people will comment and improve the idea. Perhaps people will decide to collaborate. In any case, science will move forward, and for every question answered, it seems two more appear from the results.

Since I’ve got more project ideas than hands, starting this week, I will be occasionally posting my best project ideas that I don’t have time to work on. These will be as fleshed out in the post as they are in my head. Public feedback and private collaboration is encouraged. I hate clinging to the information is expensive part, it’s against my nature. Let’s get some action going in the information is free part!


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3 responses

9 01 2009
Aaron Milstein

I look forward to stealing any and all ideas posted🙂

13 03 2010
aileen

thanks of the insight! i look forward to following these posts!

18 11 2012
In re “Philosophy : Freedom of scientific information” pe Trilema - Un blog de Mircea Popescu.

[…] Hiresii wrote Philosophy : Freedom of scientific information years ago. In it, he glosses over a few problems, such […]

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