To open publish or not to open publish? That’s my current question.

I’m not sure how I feel about open publishing. I’ve been wrestling with this idea since a conversation several years ago with a friend who is very open about his content (to the extent that he feels comfortable releasing Creative Commons versions of his published works). He asked if I would release my PhD online once it was done. I might, I said. Maybe.

I’ve come to realise that I’m not totally comfortable with the idea. I haven’t published any of my findings, nor have I distributed any of my chapter drafts as they’ve been pulled, kicking and screaming, out of my fingertips. I’ve thought about it, and then the traditionalist in me worries that the content I have generated through 4 years of long, hard slog would be stolen – yes, stolen – and I wouldn’t be able to leverage it to my advantage.

This topic has unsurprisingly come under scientific scrutiny. I’m not the only one thinking about this, after all. Scientific American published (in print and in their Edit This series) an article called Science 2.0, in which they debated whether the (admittedly rare) practice of releasing raw experimental results ushered in a new era of science or opened researchers to potential exploitation. They lay out the arguments:

Of course, many scientists remain wary of such openness—especially in the hypercompetitive biomedical fields, where patents, promotion and tenure can hinge on being the first to publish a new discovery. For these practitioners, Science 2.0 seems dangerous: putting your serious work out on blogs and social networks feels like an open invitation to have your lab notebooks vandalized—or, worse, your best ideas stolen and published by a rival.

To advocates, however, an atmosphere of openness makes science more productive. “When you do your work online, out in the open,” Hooker says, “you quickly find that you’re not competing with other scientists anymore but cooperating with them.”

I desperately want the latter, but fear the former. And so I have yet to do anything.

There is yet another argument against open sourcing academic content, one which was recently described by the Science Blog: by releasing it for free, the value of the knowledge is reduced because anyone can access it. It is perceived as being less worthy than something that is exclusive. It is no longer rare:

On average, when a given publication was made available online after being in print for a year, being published in an open source format increased the use of that article by about 8 percent. When articles are made available online in a commercial format a year after publication, however, usage increases by about 12 percent.

“Across the scientific community,” [James A.] Evans [from University of Chicago] said in an interview, “it turns out that open access does have a positive impact on the attention that’s given to the journal articles, but it’s a small impact.”

That’s why weird artefacts from World of Warcraft cost so much more in real money transfer amongst players in the black digital market than the stuff anyone can have.

And so I am still torn. I would like to release my content for feedback. In the past few months, I have developed the confidence for public scrutiny of my work. But I worry that it will be remixed, mashed up and published elsewhere (as happened to my Aunt when she was in the writing up phase of her doctorate), thus a) undermining my hard work and b) giving someone else credit.

I’m very curious – how have others resolved this for themselves?


~ by aleks on February 23, 2009.

7 Responses to “To open publish or not to open publish? That’s my current question.”

  1. give it away after it is published, not before, especially when starting the career.

  2. I am exactly the same position. I would like to turn my thesis into a book and I fear that if I made part or all of it available now publishers would not accept it. Not fair but that seems to be the way things are going. Of course there’s nothing to prevent you from sending it to individuals who ask for it…

  3. I am not yet at that stage but found the issue debated at a pre-conference workshop to last year’s IR9 in Copenhagen a very interesting one and the question itself very challenging. There is certainly no easy answer, as also danah boyd found when she made her PhD dissertation available online.

    I wished the entire publication landscape would be discussed earlier in a postgraduate student’s life and journals, editors and academics would be more proactive and willing to embrace the changes while acknowledging that restrictive policies might need to be reviewed, urgently reviewed.
    Best of luck with your decision making – I am sure you have already secured your readership.

  4. britbohlinger – are there any records of that workshop? Dang, I wish i’d been able to attend now,


  5. I wrote a summary of the workshop

    and here is a post discussing the keynote lectures

  6. […] it. Based on discussions I’ve been having offline with folks about the subject of a recent post, it’s experiment time. Below is a section from the introduction of Study 3 of my PhD, on the […]

  7. […] struggled with this issue myself, and have I openly asked for advice on whether I should or should not publish the entirety of my PhD thesis on the Web, as other […]

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