Public Universities and Open Source

The following is a contextual document to go with my lightning talk at WordCamp San Francisco, 2014. You can download the slides, but they are fairly contextless. 🙂

In 1904, Kenyon Butterfield introduced what he called the Social Phase of Agricultural Education. He believed agricultural colleges should be “the inspiration, the guide, the simulator of all possible endeavors to improve farm and farmer.”

He saw public universities as having 3 functions:

  • Organ of Research
  • Educator of Students
  • Distributor of Information to those who cannot come to college

His work led to the Smith-Lever act of 1914, which established the concept of extension services. These extension services are embedded in public land grant universities and act as a conduit between research and community. This establishes the distribution of information, something Butterfield actually refers to as the democratization of truth.

Today, these extension services are part of the Cooperative State Research Education and Extension Service. Its ultimate goal being to “Advance agriculture, the environment, human health and well-being, and communities.”

The core mission of the WordPress project is to democratize publishing through open source, GPL software. It’s at this intersection of ideas between WordPress and public land grant universities where I get the most excited.

We also have a long way to go.

If you look at the criteria for an associate professor in a public land grant university on track to tenure, you’ll notice an alignment with Butterfield’s vision: Teaching, Research, and Service – three things a professor must focus on to become tenured faculty.

If you talk to an associate professor, you may hear other criteria – Research. Funding of research, publication of the research, citations of your published research in the research of others…

While service, or the distribution of information, is important, it’s often the money or prestige coming into the university that can trump all.

This actually isn’t that far off from other public non-land grant universities. A professor on track to tenure there is likely focused on Teaching and Research, without the specific instruction to distribute information to their community.

With that in mind. I’ve been focused on two questions lately:

  • How do we encourage sharing of work with the community?
  • How do we make it easier to share work when one is ready to do so?

WordPress makes the second question pretty easy. We can setup a site within minutes with all the functionality needed to start publishing in an interface that actually makes it pleasant to create content.

The first question is the hard one. It involves a change in mindset.

If I talk about my research as I’m doing it, what will stop a competing researcher in another university or company from leap frogging my work and publishing before I do? Do I lose the right to my intellectual property, possibly prevented from working on something because of a patent I should have gotten?

My favorite response so far is “Who Cares?” What is the absolute worst that will happen from somebody stealing your research?

I’m not trying to trivialize the work somebody is doing. I really do thing answering this question can help answer a larger question.

What can we do to make it easier to share work while also protecting the work that someone is doing?

I think if we look to the ethos of open source, we can find the answers we’re looking for.

The free software foundation defines the four freedoms of free and open source software as such:

  • The freedom to run the program as you wish, for any purpose (freedom 0).
  • The freedom to study how the program works, and change it so it does your computing as you wish (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
  • The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2).
  • The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others (freedom 3). By doing this you can give the whole community a chance to benefit from your changes. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.

Some of this freedom is already accounted for with the rise of open access publishing. Many universities are creating policies where final research works must only be published in open access journals or, when published elsewhere, be part of an open access repository housed by the University.

However, if we really are distributing information to the community, should we not share the beginnings of our work as well, or at least the process?

Yochai Benkler, who has written a lot of great material on open source and communities, wrote that “the most precious of all public domains” is “our knowledge of the world that surrounds us”.

He also says:

“Information, knowledge, and culture are central to human freedom and human development.” – Wealth of Networks

I like those sentiments, that state of mind.

And I would like it if you gave thought to how we can, in the process of democratizing publishing, also find ways to help public universities democratize the truth.

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