As I mentioned earlier I am about to start a Wikipedia entry on “Open Data”. Lorcan Dempsey noted that this was quite a common way of approaching a communal subject.
So I shall take readers through the process of creating a WP entry and hope to convince the unconvinced that this is a high-quality scholarly activity with appropriate checks and balances.
While I was doing this Beth Ritter-Guth has been creating an analysis of our shared vision for the Blue Obelisk. She has taken the discourse on the Blue Obelisk mailing list and her own discussions with Jean-Claude Bradley and summarised these. It is extremely valuable to have such as summary as often when new ideas and activities are started the participants are so engrossed int he detail they don’t have time to look at the wider picture. You can find links to the discussion in Jean-Claude’s recent summary.
My current position – and it has changed as a result of the discussion – is that the term “Open” both unites us and causes potential confusion. “Open” has connotations of trust, collaboration, innovation, etc. but because someone espouses “Open X” that doesn’t mean they espouse “Open Y”.
I realised this at a chemical informatics meeting last year. I gave my usual rant about Open Chemistry and the semantic web and then a software saleman talked about their product. He described it as having an “Open API”. [API = application programming interface; the instructions on how to configure the software]. I asked if it was published on the Web and he said no, it was a trade secret. So here “Open” = a manual that paying customers can read (as opposed to a product where customers have no idea how to configure it.
Our discussions on Blue Obelisk mailing list revolved around the term “Open Source”. We use this in Blue Obelisk to mean “Open Source software” as defined by the Open Source Initiative. [The BO mantra is ODOSOS (Open data, Open Source, Open Standards). ]Naively I assumed that this was the only use of the term “Open Source”. However Jean Claude uses the term “Open Source Science” and Beth had assumed that this means that the philosophy behind Open Source software and Open Source science were identical. In fact I (and I suspect most other BO members) have not heard of Open Source Science (example). So I looked this up and found it has been used about 2 years ago to mean an approach to science which relies of collaboration and openness at an early stage in the process. Here is Jean Claude on patents.
It seems reasonable to extend “Open Source” philosophy to other initiatives that share some of the general principles of Open Source computing. However we cannot assume that the actual practice is compatible. Having looked at Wikipedia I find that “Open Source” is so widespread it needs a disambiguation page which lists an amazing number of “Open Source Foo”:

Specific products


Society and culture



Open-source software related:


  • Open Source, a radio show using open content information gathering methods hosted by Christopher Lydon
  • Open source intelligence, an intelligence gathering discipline based on information collected from open sources, i.e. information available to the general public.

This means that any use of “Open” is likely to be fuzzy and confusing. The “Open Access” movement is broad and supports several major points of view which, though overlapping, have significant differences either in pragmatics or philosophy. Moreover “Open Foo” does not imply “Open Bar”. Thus “Open Access” publications will not by themselves ensure “Open Data”.
More on this later…

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2 Responses to "Open"

  1. Peter – indeed I am glad that we have been having this conversation to make our assumptions explicit. All this time I have been using Open Source Science and assuming that it was obvious what it meant. It would be helpful going forward to use more specific terms and link to their definitions on sites such as Wikipedia fairly often. The term Open and Open Source have mutated to such an extent that some of the terminology has become paradoxical. For example, as you point out repeatedly, the term Open Access refers to free access to standard journal articles. However, because mostly this is made possible by authors bearing the steep publishing fees, it limits the contribution to only those with ample funding (including the type of funding that permits this type of expenditure). This blocks out many types of researchers, including probably a lot of BO members doing cheminformatics, who can’t afford to drop $2000 for the priviledge of making their paper “Open Access”.

  2. Thank you, Peter, for this post. The list you provide is a wonderful example of why language needs to be clarified. I wonder, looking at this list, if “how much” (is open) is more important than why?

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