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Elliot Maxwell on the implications of openness

Elliot Maxwell, a fellow of the communications program at Johns Hoplins University, focuses his Berkman lunch talk on the impact of openness on wider issues of responsiveness of systems and processes. He suggests that we can think of openness as a lens through which we can analyze complex systems… but warns that openness can, itself, be hard to describe.

There’s a continuum from open to closed. If you never share an idea, it’s closed – if you publish it on the public web, it’s pretty open. Open source software is closer to the middle of the continuum than you might think – people make judgements about what goes into the Linux kernel, for instance. And Wikipedia is also not purely open, in his model. The question is: what’s the appropriate degree of openness for a specific system?

Watching a televised meeting of a town council on cable television is transparent, but not open – you can’t have an impact into the discussion taking place.

Openness is an attitude, not necessarily something that organically arises from new technological systems. We’re watching medicine change from a world in which doctors are god-like figures… to one where patients come to doctors with a sheaf of printouts. This is an attitude change, not just a technology change.

We can make the mistake of teaching openness as a religion. Health records help us think about an appropriate level of openness – we want these records open to us as patients, but perhaps not as open to insurers, employers or the government.

The traditional theory of intellectual property sees control as central to value creation and innovation. We may overemphasize the idea of original genius, and we’ve created an IP system that protects first creators, sometimes at the expense of follow-on creators. Giving original creators control allows them to exercise a temporary monopoly. Protecting that control is costly, and never perfect – DRM is a great example of the ways in which asserting that control can make things harder to use.

In the context of an open source license, we decide that we won’t control and restrict, and in exchange, we’ll benefit from the contributions of follow-on innovators. And it’s cheaper – because copying is far cheaper these days than preventing people from copying. The issue that emerges is how to filter and discover high quality material.

There’s lots of movements towards openness – Wikipedia, Public Library of Science, Craigslit, user-generated content. Maxwell has been researching openness in clinical trials. In general, the emphasis in clinical trials has been to be open as late as possible in the process. Companies see a competitive advantage in keeping trials closed so as not to tip their hands… but it’s important to know about failed clinical trials. Now clinical trials are registered when they begin at ClinicalTrials.gov, and information is shared to help people not make the same mistakes.

It’s peculiar that higher ed has been less effected by openness than other information-rich industries. (Entertainment, for instance, has been wholly transformed.) The frontier for openness in higher education is open educational resources, which can be customized, localized, translated and generally transformed in ways that are useful for different audiences. But because these materials can be so quickly manipulated and changed, it’s harder to evaluate what’s worthwhile. And there are open questions about the motivations for participation – what are the incentives to make contributions to the field?

There’s been excellent work, Maxwell tells us, at CMU and elsewhere to harvest the advantages of digital materials, including the possibility of realtime assesmebt and feedback integrated within the materials. This doesn’t mean we’d want to move solely to high-feedback digital systems, but a meta-study of education research suggests that “blended models” of online and offline study are working well.

The critical moment for Open Research was the Human Genome Project versus Celera, an open model versus a closed for decoding the human genome. At the end, both sides agreed “We all won”… but really, open won. We’re seeing much more open research because it’s leading to much more rapid innovation.

Historically, there’s a strong culture of recognition that helps scientific progress move forwards – the gold standard for your research is publication in a journal like “Nature”. But if you’re releasing data as you go, it becomes harder for Nature to accept your paper. We need new ways of doing digital peer review and evaluation to recognize this change.

We’ve made exceptions for educational use in the field of intellectual property. Those accomodations now need to recognize the impact of an open educational environment and accomodate not just original, but follow-on innovators in the space. This work includes educating faculty about their intellectual property rights.

The mission of a university is to disseminate knowledge. We need, Maxwell suggests, to re-evaluate Bayh-Dole, which gives universities intellectual property rights over their creations, and consider whether we benefit from locking these developments up with IP. It seems like there should be exceptions to these IP rights that ensure that vital medicines could be accessible in the developing world. We also should recognize that universities are responsible for creating lots of orphan works as well, and we don’t deal with orphaned works well under our current copyright regime.

What happens if we decide to change openness on universities, turning university events from default closed to default open? Maxwell would like to see university events open as a default, along with open source educational administrative software and increased openness of university support services.

There’s been a long battle for open access to government funded research. NIH led the pack with a mandate for public disclosure of funded research within 12 months in open access journals. This decision is now facing aggresive lobbying by the copyright industry, while the forces of openness are trying to extend the policy further than shorten the embargo. We could also imagine increasing open access mandates to any research related to government approval – research leading towards drugs that need FDA approval, for instance. We could also support open access journals by ensuring funding for researchers to publish in these venues, which generally require the author published to pay.

Maxwell offers as a final frontier the idea of transparency in educational degrees. How do we know what people know based on the degree they’ve been awarded? The EU’s had to deal with the problem because of increased cross-border mobility – how do we compare a Greek and UK degree? The europeans have worked out a common system – we could consider building a similar system for degrees in the US. Government accreditation requirements are more of a bare minimum – not a useful comparison between institutions, and so we end up with unhelpful comparators like US News and World Report.

This might lead us towards new means of certification in a global setting. State or national certifications might no longer be meaningful in a more globalized age.

Wendy Seltzer, who invited Maxwell to speak at Berkman, asks what’s the most valuable lever for openness? He suggests that we ask the President to reconsider a model where control inevitably leads to value and less control destroys value.

3 thoughts on “Elliot Maxwell on the implications of openness”

  1. If I may add a somewhat tangential thought, or two. :)

    I sense this is very similar to privacy: the social “openness/closedness” of the individual.
    In both cases, open and closed are the extremes of a spectrum, and some like to think of the inbetween as being of different levels of opacity.

    In the personal case (privacy) we can also speak of value: the value of sharing, which is arguably the same, but which affords other “returns”, being such things are reputation, regard, whuffie, intimacy, recognition, reciprocacy, etc. (all of these are inherited by the mechanism of “openeness” in organisation I think…)

    Privacy() extends Organizational.Openess()

  2. Pingback: Aprendizagem digital, recursos educacionais abertos e cidadania | Inclusive

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