Two messages yesterday – both on the harm (intended or unintended) of using the word “open”. It’s one of those cuddly, comfort-making, words like “healthy” or “green”. Unless it’s clear what it means , it means anything-you-like, so I use “glorious” after Humpty-Dumpty in Alice TTLG.
Here’s Ed Chamberlain, library colleague and now formal collaborator in Cambridge (http://edchamberlain.wordpress.com/2011/10/12/fogging-up-in-the-cloud/ ):
Amongst a flood of product updates and familiar faces, the undoubted highlight for myself was a one hour debate on the merits of open source and proprietary software ownership models, with specific reference to library usage. The formidable but agreeable Carl Grant (EL [Ex Libris, a library software/content company] chief Librarian and former OS guru) and independent library tech consultant Owen Stephens (the MashFather himself) took the floor.
It was a fantastic thing for the UK user group and Ex Libris UK to host. Ex Libris have gone to great and commendable efforts to expose functionality in their systems to developers, so it seemed like a natural thing to do.
However, I’ll refrain from referring to their platforms as ‘open’ as they are wont to do. For one thing, their model does not match the definitions of the term espoused by the Open Knowledge Foundation and others. OKFN advocate Peter Murray-Rust has had a lot to say on this recently. Ex Libris are a company with great integrity, they don’t need to resort to mis-using words like ‘open’ for marketing purposes. Public facing works fine for me, and the functionality sells itself.
One way to improve things would be to provide public documentation on the API spec. Right now, its for customers only. Having to pay to get access to documentation on closed source software is hardly open in any sense.
Ed says it all, but here’s my own take. About a year ago EL presented their system. I make no comment on whether it’s good or not as I have no experience. But the salesperson (and it was one of those academic-presentations-where-the-purpose-is-actually-sales – “product placements” – where objectivity is replaced by marketing) said something like (the spirit is correct, but the verbatimness is frayed):
S: “Our system has an Open-API”
PMR: “Can I use it?”
S: “Not if you haven’t purchased it”
PMR: “So how is it Open?”
S: “Customers who have purchased it can use it.”
PMR: “Can I see the documentation?”
S: “Not if you are not a customer. It’s confidential”.
PMR: “Can one of your customers show me the documentation?”
S: “No, that would breach their contract”
So here “glorious” seems to mean: “documented”. EL sell their customers software. In the past it wasn’t documented and may not have had hooks (API). Now it does.
So, EL, please do not use the word “open”. Use “documented”.
Here’s another. From a private correspondent who is upset about “Open” as used by VertNet: http://220.127.116.11/pres/PresentationServlet?action=home (the content is to do with vertebrae, I think)
The project is described as:
VertNet is an open, collaborative network. Data providers interested in joining this effort can find out about software and related information on the VertNet project web site.
Their data policy
Disclaimer and Use of Data retrieved through VertNet
Data records provided through VertNet may be used by individual researchers or research groups, but they may not be repackaged, resold, or redistributed in any form without the express written consent of the original institution where those records are held.
My correspondent objected to “open” being applied to the data. The problem arises in that here it isn’t clear what “open” means. I think it means that anyone can participate, or at least ask to participate. It clearly does not apply to all parts of the project. What would be a good word instead? I can’t immediately think of one – something like “community”? “meritocratic”? I don’t think so – I think it means the project information is exposed as “look-but-don’t-touch”. “weak-gratis” might be a reasonable guess.
“Open-glorious” does more harm than good. Unless you are deliberately deceptive, in which case it’s a great concept. Like “healthy green natural free”.