"Open," Patronage, and Plan S

"Open" has been adopted by politicians, bureaucrats, and self-designed advocates who generally possess short-term orientations and may not have thought through some possible downsides. In some respects, "open" is like anti-vaccine and anti-GMO ideas, promulgated largely by people comfortable enough to be insulated from the consequences, yet only viable when the system they want to change (the herd effect, good food availability) is working. "Open" can only be contemplated when there are enough publishers, computer scientists, researchers, and infrastructure paid for otherwise to allow it to exist as a sort of hobby or sideshow.

But the push to make "open" central goes on, nevertheless, in an era where it seems once a ball gets rolling, there's just no stopping it (for example, anti-vaccination fears, started over 20 years ago and debunked continuously ever since, roll on.)

This post will discuss at least one long-term downside of supporting "open" initiatives -- dependency on wealthy patrons.

Some open source solutions have succeeded by some measures. However, viewed with a critical eye, these are modest successes at best, with some becoming proprietary later out of necessity (GitHub). It's worth contemplating how modest the successes have actually been. Linux and Wikipedia are often cited as examples of success of open source initiatives. But as Jaron Lanier wrote in his eerily prophetic book which I reviewed here almost a decade ago now, "You Are Not a Gadget":

Let’s suppose that, back in the 1980s, I had said, “In a quarter century, when the digital revolution has made great progress and computer chips are millions of times faster than they are now, humanity will finally win the prize of being able to write a new encyclopedia and a new version of UNIX!” It would have sounded utterly pathetic.

One flaw is that "open" has become synonymous with "free." As Jaron Lanier writes in his new book, "Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now":

The movement to make software free was founded on an honest mistake. It became dogma that if software wasn't free, then it couldn't be open, meaning no one but the owner would see the source code, so no one but the owner would understand what the software really did. . . . Everyone knew that software would eventually become more important than law, so the prospect of a world running on hidden code was dark and creepy.

However, as Lanier points out, this was all formulated before computers were widely networked, making the scale of free software a non-obvious concern. Now, however, vast networks built on a foundation of free and open software (Linux and Apache, for example) have created multinational information manipulation companies with powers rivaling the powers of major governments, determining in some key respects the outcomes of elections, and dominating social discourse and information distribution. As Lanier notes, the openness ends there:

. . . 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.

A side effect of this is a familiar cognitive dissonance over technology advocates when it comes to economics, as Lanier writes:

Everything must be free, but we love mega tech founder heroes. Do you see the contradiction? Everything is supposed to be free, but everything is also supposed to be about hero entrepreneurs, and entrepreneurs make money. How can those two directives be reconciled? There was a lot of hedging and fudging on this point around the turn of the century. Ultimately, only one method of reconciliation was identified: the advertising business model. . . . This didn't feel dystopian at first. . . . But as the internet, the devices, and the algorithms advanced, advertising inevitably morphed into mass behavior modification.

Let's put a pin in "online advertising as mass surveillance and behavior modification we tolerate in order not to pay for valuable services." The fact remains that the "open" movement, and its conflation with free, has decimated the underlying information economy for the sake of a few major winners -- exactly the contradiction observed by some early skeptics of the "open" mentality. And these few winners are taking their love of "free" and "open" into other areas via philanthropy -- or, to use a more historically charged term, patronage.

Generally, "open" initiatives seem to simply move established creative outputs onto less viable economic footing, with fewer winners and more losers. This has major consequences, as Lanier notes about the creative arts in his earlier book, "You Are Not a Gadget":

[Open] . . . could eventually force anyone who wants to survive on the basis of mental activity . . . to enter into some sort of legal or political fortress -- or become a pet of a wealthy patron -- in order to be protected. . . . We forget what a wonder, what a breath of fresh air it has been to have creative people make their way in the world of commerce instead of patronage. Patrons gave us Bach and Michelangelo, but it's unlikely patrons would have given us Vladimir Nabokov, the Beatles, or Stanley Kubrick.

Because there are fewer winners and more losers, "open" creates dependency on the winners, who often deliver their largesse via patronage of some kind.

In an "open" economy, commercial entities (i.e., people who work for a living) are left with less money to pursue change, while the winners from the asymmetrical "open" approach find themselves with a lot of money and a fondness for "open" initiatives, a fondness they want to cultivate elsewhere. These factors -- economic inequality and an itch to impose social goals -- leads to a patronage system that perpetuates the contradiction of "free but rich and powerful."

"Open" initiatives in our area are often beholden to funding from patrons (Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation to start PLOS; Cornell hosts arXiv, its patronage just shifting slightly again; the Wellcome Trust, HHMI, and Max Planck founding eLife initially; and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative funding bioRxiv currently; with others emerging all the time). We are seeing patronage around many "open" initiatives, just as Lanier foresaw in 2009.

This kind of marginal benevolence has come under scrutiny lately, viewed as a band-aid the wealthy elites can offer when reputation concerns or legacy motivations come to the fore. We may be living in what one writer called as early as 2001 a "new Gilded Age," where this kind of patronage and philanthropy harks back to the exploitative philanthropy of the Carnegies and others, who with one hand would give to create and support public libraries and institutions of higher education, while with the other would suppress workers' pay, pollute rivers, and run unsafe factories.

The current style of philanthropy is called into question in a couple of new books. A recent article in the New Yorker provides a useful and interesting summarization of what these books argue, which is called by one writer "the Aspen consensus," a reference to the swanky Aspen conferences where elites meet to discuss world issues and align their views. Anand Giridharadas, author of the new book, "Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World," describes the Aspen consensus as this:

The winners of our age must be challenged to do more good. But never, ever tell them to do less harm.

David Callahan, founder of the site Inside Philanthropy, states:

An ever larger and richer upper class is amplifying its influence through large-scale giving in an era when it already has too much clout. Things are going to get worse, too.

The unfairness of this becomes clear when you see that disproportionately wealthy people, who already have vast social impact, are then able to take a sizable share of their winnings, tuck those away in a non-profit or charitable LLC, avoid paying taxes on these funds, drive social change using them, and have even greater social impact.

In our industry, funders as patrons are driving the "open" movement, whether via open source solutions, open access, or open science. "Open" has introduced patronage into the scientific, academic, and publishing economy on a scale we haven't really seen before, and the trend toward patronage seems to be accelerating.

Science and academia have a mixed history with patrons, and as Lanier notes, the broader commercial market seems better-suited to producing innovation and interesting voices than we could expect from a small set of patrons. Reliance on patronage in this manner makes "open" anti-diversity (fewer people can make a living by creating and selling information) and anti-growth (dominant models and companies sop up all the opportunity, leaving scraps and fewer options for others).

Often, patrons can have ignorance or disdain for the consequences of their actions. As Lanier says in a recent television interview:

When Facebook had a slogan saying, "Move fast and break things," the stuff that they broke were institutions like journals, journalistic entities, that would maintain quality, that people would use voluntarily, that people would join voluntarily, but still had standards. . . . The only alternative is to recreate the kind of society [they] undermined. . . . As long as [behavior modification and advertising manipulation] is the business model, of course you undermine the ability to create brands that enforce quality.

Roger Schonfeld's recent post on the Scholarly Kitchen about Read and Publish initiatives has patronage's fingerprints all over it, with one comment noting:

What is interesting in today’s announcement of Plan S is the extent to which (many) European funders have now agreed on shared objectives, given that what we’ve had up till now had been a very fragmented policy landscape. This undoubtedly changes the market dynamics, and the funders’ newfound willingness to curtail authors’ choice of publication venue for the good of the ‘the science system as a whole’ marks a step change from what we’ve seen up till now.

Note that here we have a coalition of patrons seeking to limit author choice for the sake of pursuing "open" initiatives. This is the kind of asymmetrical power relationship being created via an information economy tilting toward a patronage economy.

The "open" movement seeks to eliminate economic tiers and variations, with the theory being that all information is equivalent. This cuts against quality enforcement, as well, with the Gold OA model adding the seductive financial arrangement that the more you publish, the more money you make, which runs counter to the kinds of information economics that created strong quality brands. There will be no innovation around quality without incentives to create quality, and "open" eliminates these.

Meanwhile, the associated surveillance and manipulation economy is vast and growing. We're all familiar with the Cambridge Analytica and Facebook scandals, but Google has recently been caught with its hands in the proverbial cookie jar (pun intended), with reports revealing that Google tracks user location and other data even when users have explicitly turned these services off, and that Google and Mastercard have cut a secret data-sharing deal so that Google can track users' offline shopping habits to better inform their online advertising/surveillance/manipulation engine. Google search remains free, despite their algorithms being decidedly proprietary. Their way of separating "free" from "open" is to monitor the general population in order to create a behavior modification system that drives billions of dollars of advertising revenue. Your content, shopping patterns, browser histories, email exchanges, and more are open to them, but no revenues flow back to you.

"Open" has worked for them, and if it exploits you, they see no downside. On a conscious or subconscious level, these surveillance-to-advertising companies want to "open" science to surveil it, "open" education to surveil it, and so forth. If Google donates to things, they will likely have a bias toward "open" and its attendant surveillance systems. In fact, the Google.org home page starts with an open source initiative, which is no surprise given how  free software and surveillance systems have served them in the past.

Yet, in general, creativity works more reliably if creative people have time sheltered from the demands of the outside world, a space to work privately, so that they can make mistakes, iterate, dream, ponder, and test out ideas in a non-public setting. For a musician or actor, there is no better place to be creative than during practice and rehearsal -- to push a technique, an idea, or a direction. For a scientist or an academic, this is often quite similar, and pushing ideas privately allows for exploration without embarrassment.

Of course, for patrons who have grown rich exploiting "open" systems, the idea of paying for information is unacceptable, and the idea of privacy is objectionable. To them, the subscription model is "closed" versus free information which is "open." This is of course not the case. Incentives to share are what opens information. If there are fewer incentives to share, less is shared. The science economist Paula Stephan notes in her book "How Economics Shapes Science" that the incentives of publication open science up, because the only way to claim something is yours is to share it. Lanier embellishes this by noting that having time protected from outside pressures at important phases of the scientific process is vital to progress, writing in "You Are Not a Gadget":

So science as it is already practiced is open, but in a punctuated, not continuous, way. The interval of nonopenness -- the time before publication -- functions like the walls of a cell. It allows a complicated stream of elements to be defined well enough to be explored, tested, and then improved.

Ironically, demands for open data and open science threaten the crucial encapsulated, insulated periods necessary for creativity, initial exploration, ideation, and preliminary testing. A concern of authors and scientists already is the burden of being open on time that is already overcommitted and overextended. If these pressures were removed, or moved to a commercially viable alternative that is not open but protected, with appropriate commercial and legal barriers to use, scientists and scholars would have more time for creative work and breakthrough thinking.  

You only have to look at Altmetric to see an imprint of this in our industry. Altmetric relies heavily on Twitter data to reach its counts, yet Twitter's behavior is a black box designed to optimize revenues through feeds and ads designed to manipulate behavior via surveillance. (Twitter only started to make money when it started manipulating its feed.) Being downstream from this unaccountable and opaque online Skinner box, Altmetric is largely a recipient of manipulated information behavior -- what Twitter's algorithm deigned to show its users, what users click on, a likely predominance of negative feedback rather than positive feedback, and not what users actually might find valuable or actually demanded, only what the algorithm allowed them to choose from. Yet, Altmetric is a major measure for all publishers, but especially for OA publications, where usage, subscriptions, and renewals aren't other measures of value. With Altmetric serving as a manipulated popularity signal supposedly validating OA articles' reach and impact, it is reinforcing the surveillance and manipulation system generating much of the data.

Lanier compares the "open" economy and the prevailing business model with lead paint, with the poisonous elements being the erosion of cultural and economic norms, unremunerated work, a surveillance and manipulation economy, benefits mainly accruing to the comfortable class and elites, a tendency toward authoritarianism, and the erosion of opportunity and democratic culture. We like paint, and want paint, and nobody who called out the dangers of lead paint said we should stop painting houses. They merely said we needed to take the lead out of paint to make it safe and healthy. We did that, and thousands of children became safer as a result. The same could hold for leaded gasoline. Remove the toxin, and the fuel is far safer for everyone, with broad and positive social and personal benefits.

The poisons of "open" culture include reliance on a business model that is poisonous and not virtuous, and enablement of numerous downstream negative effects, including patronage. Lanier extended this point in a CNBC interview related to the release of his recent book:

What we have to do is change the business model so they become more like real businesses where the user is also the customer. As long as that's the business model, of course you undermine the ability to create brands that enforce quality, because it's all about manipulation.

Because "open" is conflated with "free," we are stuck without options for business models that exploit users, opting by default for a world of manipulation and behavior modification. Along with this comes patronage, with many of the patrons firm believers in the "open" culture that has delivered such bounties to them.

Now, in scholarly publishing, the patrons are moving the business inevitably into the surveillance, behavior modification, and information manipulation mode, if only by shutting off the ability to earn money by asking consumers to pay for access. You only need to look at the data-centric acquisitions and announcements of the past 24-36 months to see the trend has registered with strategists at the major publishing companies.

Patronage has infused its way into scholarly publishing on the back of "open" initiatives, which themselves are strongly associated with a behavior modification and surveillance economy based on manipulative advertising and user monitoring. What could possibly go wrong?