Science without vision

Where there is no vision, the people perish
Proverbs 29:18

[T]here are few heroes and fewer villains… There are merely organizations responding to the reality of the situation.
Karen Calhoun, OCLC vice president

Watching the panel on open access funder mandates this afternoon, I was struck by a feeling. I felt it again reading this report on OCLC’s failure to open access to its bibliographic records. The feeling is that, in both cases, the academic establishment is exhibiting a criminal lack of imagination.

So often, I focus on the details. Details are important — it’s important to get things right, not just rush ahead. But sometimes you have to step back and get a broader perspective.

As I listened to society publishers throw whatever complaints might stick at the crucial and eminently reasonable NIH Public Access Policy, and as I read about OCLC‘s transactional (vs. transformational) philosophy, I wondered, how did we get here?

I expect such small-mindedness from businesses with quarterly goals and shareholders to satisfy. I don’t expect it from non-profits — legally, charitable groups dedicated to the public good — and least of all from scientific and library organizations. If academic organizations can’t be high-minded, can’t see the bigger picture, can’t experiment, can’t take risks, then what’s the point?

I don’t say this to demonize those who doubt or criticize or drag their feet. I see all people as peers: sometimes, everyone makes mistakes, and it’s up to our peers to call us out, to challenge us to do more — to choose our better history.

These are not untested ideas. They are newer ideas, yes, and so they are less certain. But there has been so much study and so many examples. We know it works; it already does. Openness can unleash waves of innovation. Without overstating it, we will change the way that science is done.

But there is always a risk with change, no matter how well-understood. Eventually, you just have to make a decision.

My ancestors stood on the other side of the Atlantic and had to make a decision. They chose to take a risk.

History is full of tales of the radical and the improbable. Despite the odds, we built a free encyclopedia. Despite the odds, we built a free operating system. And despite the odds, we’ll build a free science, too.

It has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things … who have carried us up the long, rugged path toward prosperity and freedom.
Barack Obama

I hope, though it is a faint hope, that those who drag their feet will, someday soon, choose our better history, too.

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