Open Source and the Tragedy of the Lurkers

In my last post ( Science Commons and Pasteur’s Quadrant) I pointed readers to the collection of vision papers for next week’s meeting on the Science Commons. I ended it with an implied challenge to the pharmceutical industry thats they were, in effect, parasitic on the Open Source movement. I also used the phrase “Commons” frequently.
Wikipedia describes a common as

In England and Wales, a common (or common land) is a piece of land over which other people—often neighbouring landowners—could exercise one of a number of traditional rights, such as allowing their cattle to graze upon it. The older texts use the word “common” to denote any such right, but more modern usage is to refer to particular rights of common, and to reserve the word “common” for the land over which the rights are exercised. By extension, the term “commons” has come to be applied to other resources which a community has rights or access to.

Again from WP:

The tragedy of the commons is a phrase used to refer to a class of phenomena that involve a conflict for resources between individual interests and the common good. The term derives originally from a parable published by William Forster Lloyd in his 1833 book on population. It was then popularized and extended by Garrett Hardin in his 1968 Science essay “The Tragedy of the Commons”. See also the enclosure of the commons, and its attendant social problems, which may have inspired the content of the parable. The opposite situation to a tragedy of the commons is sometimes referred to as a tragedy of the anticommons.

which itself is described as:

The tragedy of the anticommons is a situation where rational individuals (acting separately) collectively waste a given resource by under-utilizing it. […] This happens when too many individuals have rights of exclusion (such as property rights) in a scarce resource. […]
The term “tragedy of the anticommons” was originally coined by Harvard Law professor Frank Michelman and popularized in 1998 by Michael Heller, a law professor at Columbia Law School. [They] pointed to biomedical research as one of the key areas where competing patent rights actually prevent useful and affordable products from reaching the marketplace.

On the Internet and in the digital age the initial cost of manufacture is high, but the cost of copying is effectively zero so it can be argued that there is no tragedy of the commons and that re-use has a beneficial effect (e.g. The comedy of the commons, speech by Lawrence Lessig (Lawrence Lessig) – audio). So why am I upset that pharma companies may use Open Source software and data without contributing to it?
I am not an economist and it could be useful if someone put this in terms of economic theory as for the Commons. At present I am calling it the Tragedy of the Lurkers. WP defines a lurker as:

In Internet culture, a lurker is a person who reads discussions on a message board, newsgroup, chatroom or other interactive system, but rarely participates.

I have been involved in building and help run virtual communities for many years and have a rough figure that 90% of any Internet group are lurkers (BTW this is not a pejorative term, and has nothing to do with lurkers on commons in real life). A listmanager or MOO-wizard will be able to estimate the percentage of lurkers but other members cannot do so. A project at sourceforge such as CDK has statitics on downloads and commits but does not give any idea of how many people use it.
That is competing with vastly successful IT projects in very widepsread use. So here we have a very widely used system and complete silence from the user community. That is a tragedy of some sort.
When I speak to people in the pharma industry I frequently hear “we have run a million compounds through InChI”, “we use Openbabel for our file conversions”, “we use CML for …”. Yet the authors and developers of these systems know NOTHING of these activities. There is a hinterland of unknown size that is completely silent.
Given that the cost of replication is zero (and borne by Sourceforge and the net) why should this matter. It doesn’t detract from our development activity. If the lurkers stopped we wouldn’t notice anything (except some lower stats in SF). Bet yes, there is a tragedy.
Open Source developers have a very lonely road. It can be years before anything takes off. So the most important thing is the community. We invest our resources in the expectation of the community developing. There is a natural hope that the users of the goods will, in some way, contribute. There is, of course, no legal requirement but I think there is a moral one. Contributions need not be code or financial (though these are appreciated) but can be bug reporting, use cases, documentation, and simple moral support. If by a lack of such contribution users make the future development of the
good less easy than it would have been there is a tragedy.
I’ve worked in pharma – it can be very secretive. But I suspect there are many people in pharma who not only use Open Source but have developed material to contribute. Perhaps it is fear we have to overcome…

see also:
Online Consumer Communities: Escaping the Tragedy of the Digital Commons

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5 Responses to Open Source and the Tragedy of the Lurkers

  1. Pingback: Unilever Centre for Molecular Informatics, Cambridge - petermr’s blog » Blog Archive » Open Knowledge Foundation

  2. daen says:

    I can think of several reasons for this, Peter. I downloaded OpenBabel some time ago, wrote a interface layer (which treats C++ object instances as handles), built a DLL from the source using MinGW and wrote a wrapper for Delphi around the whole thing. It was very much a rush job and I have never gone back to clean it up. It was a quick hack but it kind of worked enough for what we were trying to do at the time (doing SMILESMOLFILE conversion driven from an Access database). In my opinion, there’s an ethical issue in contributing code which you know to be sub-standard and have neither the time nor inclination to redact.

  3. Pingback: Unilever Centre for Molecular Informatics, Cambridge - petermr’s blog » Blog Archive » Presentation to Open Scholarship 2006

  4. Pingback: Unilever Centre for Molecular Informatics, Cambridge - petermr’s blog » Blog Archive » Open Map Data?

  5. Pingback: Unilever Centre for Molecular Informatics, Cambridge - petermr’s blog » Blog Archive » Oh Dear … Patent on Name2Structure conversion

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