UK Web Focus

Innovation and best practices for the Web

Archive for April 6th, 2009

Must Institutional Repository and Open Science Software be Open Source?

Posted by Brian Kelly (UK Web Focus) on 6 April 2009

Institutional Repositories Should Be Built on Open Source Software” is one topic in “Institutional Repositories: The Great Debate”  which is being held in the current issue (April/May 2009 -PDF format) of “The Bulletin of the American Society for Information Science and Technology”.

Meanwhile over on Glyn Moody’s Open … blog an argument is being made that “Open Science Requires Open Source“. Here we read that:

The central argument is important: that you can’t do science with closed source software, because you can’t examine its assumptions or logic (that “incomplete scientific record”). Open science demands open source.

And who could possibly disagree?

Well I’d challenge such conclusions. I feel that we need to reflect on the over-hyping of open source software over the past decade: we should now, if you believed the hype, all be using open source office software on our desktop PCs, and those desktop machines would all be running Linux. But this doesn’t reflect the working environment for most people, with open source email clients now seemingly in need of saving.

Despite its failure to live up to the expectations of the evangelists, we are now seeing more effective use of open source software. But for me this is because open source software is now being evaluated on par with licenced software, and not because open source software is felt to have any natural advantages. I would argue, in fact, that uncritical acceptance of open source software in the past led to disillusioned end users and the ‘counter-culture’ approach adopted by some open source developers led to the software development which failed to have a community to ensure that the software was sustainable  in the long-term future.

Despite the frequently cited examples of Apache, email server software and the like, is there evidence that open source software has a significant role to play beyond the server environment?

And in cases in which open source software is growing in use, such as Open Office on cheap Netbook computers such as the Asus EEE PC, isn’t it the case that the advantages provided by such software are in avoiding licence costs  rather than in the other benefits which open source evangelists promote?  Aren’t the benefits for most users to be found inthe amntra that the software is  “free as in beer” rather than “free as in speech”?

At the JISC OSS Watch’s inaugural conference Jeremy Wray, Business Development Executive for Public Sector, IBM argued that it would be a mistake to compete in well-established markets such as office software, citing IBM’s failures in competing with Microsoft. Perhaps open source software should be positioned in more niche sectors such as institutional repositories and open science?  And yet even here I have my doubts. If we are passionate about open access to research publications and open access to scientific data, then shouldn’t we be focussed on such issues and be neutral on the production mechanisms used to develop the associated software? And the argument that you need open source software to examine the assumptions and logic is flawed – source code can be made available for inspection without it being licensed under an OSI-conformant open source licence.

Yes, use open source institutional repository software and open source open science software. But do so because the software satisfies its intended purpose and is better than proprietary alternatives and not just because it is open source. And let’s not forget the associated risks of using open source solutions: many of the more widely used open source applications are bankrolled by large IT companies which are suffering from the economic downturn. And if widely used open source solutions start to suffer from a lack of ongoing inverstment, where will that leave the more niche solutions?

Posted in General | 4 Comments »