Open Sesame

There is an “Open Research” meeting here in Auckland this week and I am registered for the “unconference” on the second day (I am also headed to Kiwi Foo on the weekend, which means I will attend more unconferences in a week than I managed in the rest of my life).   

My first taste of open research — but no-one called it open research back then — came as a PhD student at the University of Canterbury in 1990, where the circulation of the “preprint list” was a weekly ritual.  Possibly this is more accurately “open science”, a subset of open research.  Back then, scientists sent pre-publication copies of their papers (“preprints”) to a handful of libraries and leading institutions. As a public service, the library at SLAC mailed a weekly list of new preprints it had received to particle physics researchers all round the world.  (Actually, I think you had to pay an annual subscription to cover the postage.)

After it arrived at Canterbury, the list went from hand to hand among the researchers with an interest in particle physics. When you got the list, you flagged titles that looked interesting, noted the author’s institution, turned to a longer list that provided their postal addresses, filled in the blanks on a special postcard politely requesting a copy of the article, and mailed it off.  A few weeks or months later an envelope arrived in the mailroom with your name on it, possibly some exotic stamps, and the preprint inside.  

Then, in 1991 the “Archive” was launched by Paul Ginsparg from the domain (There was also an earlier, smaller, and less automated service run by Joanne Cohn.)  The Archive sent a daily digest, you submitted papers to the archive by email (or even ftp),  the list was distributed by email, and you requested papers by emailing a software robot. This is what the pre-www Internet looked like. 

Papers arrived as raw LaTeX (or just TeX),  an HTML-like mathematical mark-up language that was (and is) ubiquitous in particle physics. A few keystrokes at the command line turned the source file into a typeset paper, and thus a process which had taken weeks or months now took minutes.  Not only that, a PhD student in New Zealand now got preprints at the same time as a professor at Harvard.

As time went by, the operation became more professional and spread across multiple disciplines. For a taste of the wild west days of open science, check out early messages to Archive suscribers [sic] — search for “suscribe” [sic].  

Nowadays, the Archive (at the domain is the dominant repository for papers in particle physics and astronomy.  But perhaps more importantly, the Archive has reached the point where it threatens to do to traditional journals what MP3s did to record shops, as it represents a radically new model for scientific publishing.  In particle physics and astrophysics, the Archive is essentially complete — I almost never see traditionally published papers that are not also posted to the Archive.   Not only that, I am more likely to download the preprint than the journal’s version of an article, because everything is on the Archive which makes it a one-stop shop, whereas each journal has its own website.  

There are many philosophical arguments in favor of openness in science, but from my perspective the basis of the Archive’s success is entirely pragmatic — it makes it easier for scientists to do science.

[More on Open Science and Open Research in Part 2 of this blog – coming soon.]