Will "Open" Create Secrets?

The academic and scientific publishing economy is a wonder. People who gain no money directly from publishing their hard-won secrets do so willingly, to the benefit of others. This is all driven by a prestige economy that makes it so the only way to make a claim yours is to share it, because the competition to be first is so important.

These factors make science and scholarship largely self-managing, while ensuring a constant flow of new findings to resupply our store of knowledge and broaden and deepen our understanding of nature.

It wasn't always so. Before the advent of a reliable way to register a finding as coming from an individual author, most scientists kept their findings secret. Some would write them in code in letters to others. Books became one way of registering new findings, but as science grew and accelerated, journals became the favored path. Now, pre-print servers are absorbing the quest to be registered as the first with a finding.

Other things have changed, namely the emergence of a large information manipulation space dominated by Facebook, Google, and Twitter. These platforms work as intermediaries to such an extent that their executives have been called upon to testify before Congress in the US and before Parliament in the UK. In the EU, multiple fines have been levied because of their practices. 

Two of these companies are active in the scientific and scholarly publishing economy — CZI with Meta and bioRxiv, and Google with Scholar and a new data search capability reliant on open data policies.

The "open" movement in scientific publishing and scientific information -- open access, open science -- takes business model options off the table, notably subscriptions and licensing. These models work at many scales, from niche publishers to large multinationals. As such, they have helped ensure a continuous stream of startup publishers as well as preserved diversity in the marketplace. In addition, the subscription and licensing terms negotiated with larger entities have assured viability and dictated limits, helping to foster market equilibrium.

Open access publishing rewards consolidation and scale, while rejecting the concept of negotiated reuse. Its effects have been tremendously difficult for smaller publishers to absorb. An unknown number of smaller publishers have never started up, while more small and mid-sized publishers are seeking shelter, with contracts with larger publishers more common than ever, and there seems to be no end to it.

“Open” in computer software led to a step-function of secrecy, something that may happen in science and technology without market diversity and negotiated reuse terms set to counterbalance the trend. As Jaron Lanier writes in his new book, when talking about how Google and Facebook use open source software (Apache and Linux, to name two) to power their empires:

. . . no one can know what is done on top of that free and open foundation. The open-software movement failed absolutely in the quest to foster openness and transparency in the code that now runs our lives.

With Facebook behind Meta and bioRxiv, who knows what Facebook is gleaning from these sources, mixing with their own vast data repositories, and seeking to discover? They have no “publish or perish” pressures, only commercial ambitions. The same goes for Apple (Apple Health and the Apple Watch are tremendous data sources), and Google (Android devices and smartwatches are no slouches). Publication is not their bread and butter. Secrecy and proprietary data is how they differentiate themselves.

But health data isn’t the only scientific data being gobbled up by these companies to advance their commercial ambitions. Geographic data (Google Earth), planetary data (Google Space), and demographic data are all there, being analyzed for commercial ends.

With open access, open data, and open science, scholarly and scientific publishing could be aiding and abetting this kind of commercial secrecy, adding to vast data stores without any leverage over how the data are used. A CC-BY means nothing to these companies if they never publish their findings — in fact, CC-BY may make them even more likely to keep their findings secret, so they don’t have to share credit or windfalls with anyone via attribution.

Commercial deals give publishers and data owners and their proxies power over how data and papers are used. “Open” defeats these checks and balances. This may mean secrets about us, our world, and our civilization are more likely to be locked up inside data vaults at private companies, with counter-incentives to the normal scientific and scholarly publication practices that have revealed secrets about the world, our health, and our history.

It would be ironic indeed if “open” created more secrets, while publication and commercial power sustained for long periods of time turned out to be what created the secret-cracking incentives and market equilibrium we now take for granted.