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Free to know: Open access and open source


Reposted from Free to Know: Open access & open source, originally posted by STEMI education on Medium.

Q&A with Vedran Miletić

In June 2014, Elon Musk opened up all Tesla patents. In a blog post announcing this, he wrote that patents "serve merely to stifle progress, entrench the positions of giant corporations and enrich those in the legal profession, rather than the actual inventors." In other words, he joined those who believe that free knowledge is the prerequisite for a great society -- that it is the vibrancy of the educated masses that can make us capable of handling the strange problems our world is made of.

The movements that promote and cultivate this vibrancy are probably most frequently associated with terms "Open access" and "open source". In order to learn more about them, we Q&A-ed Vedran Miletić, the Rocker of Science -- researcher, developer and teacher, currently working in computational chemistry, and a free and open source software contributor and activist. You can read more of his thoughts on free software and related themes on his great blog, Nudged Elastic Band. We hope you will join him, us, and Elon Musk in promoting free knowledge, cooperation and education.

Open access and open source put individual freedom above profits.

What is the difference between Open access and open source? Or can we just use the terms interchangeably?

The basic idea between both movements is shared, but there is a difference between the two terms.

Open access (OA) implies unrestricted access to research results, i.e. scientific papers published in journals, conference proceedings, doctoral theses, book chapters, and other publications. Open access can further be classified into gratis OA and libre OA. The first one just implies unrestricted access free of charge, and the second one adds additional usage rights, e.g. creation of derivative works under specific conditions.

On the other hand, open source is a product development model that advocates unrestricted access to product's design, and also unrestricted modification and redistribution of the design. Such unrestricted access, modification, and redistribution allow collaborative product development. If the product is a software package, the product's design is the source code. Many of the widely used software packages are completely or largely open source: Mozilla Firefox, Google Chrome, LibreOffice, Linux, WordPress, MediaWiki (which powers Wikipedia), and others.

Therefore, we can not use the terms interchangeably.

Which Open access / open source developments in Rijeka, Croatia, Mediterranean, Balkans do you find are worth mentioning?

It is hard to think about either Open access or open source as having any regional character; both are global movements. Nevertheless, there are numerous efforts relating to promotion of the open source movement happening in Croatia. The largest two groups promoting open source are Croatian Linux Users Group (Hrvatska udruga Linux korisnika, HULK) and HrOpen, the organizers behind the DORS/CLUC conference, the Document Freedom Day celebrations, the Linux installfests, and other events.

There are many smaller groups and events, such as Monteparadiso Hacklab in Pula, LKLK konferencija Linux korisnika in Rijeka, Otvorena mreža, OpenStreetMap Hrvatska, and probably many others I have not been involved with. Open source covers a large spectrum of interests and activities, so I am pretty sure I am not aware of all or even the most of them.

Sure, greater popular movement in terms of both Open access and open source would be very welcome. Promotion of Open access could be done at the university level, where students work with research results for the first time. Promotion of open source could be done at any level of education, or even in the general public. People today are concerned about their privacy being taken away by both the companies and their governments, and open source can provide a solution to that problem. Namely, one can inspect the software source code to see exactly what the software does.

In the open source communities, there is rarely a centralized development of any kind. Instead, there is a loose community of contributors who propose ideas and work on them. I imagine any promotion efforts that will be done in the future will be driven bottom-up, rather than top-down.

Artists can certainly help with the software user interface design, web design, logo design, etc. They can also aid the development of the specific software they use by proposing new features, suggesting the different approaches to the implementation of features, etc. Artists are important, just like every other group of people working to further the open source movement.

Which institutions should we pressure to have greater OA/OS possibilities?

Government agencies, publicly-funded schools and universities are the first target. All of them should be promoting approaches like OA and OS which put individual freedom above profits. The same philosophy may or may not apply for profit-oriented private companies.

Furthermore, I believe that the universities should be the leaders in accepting the new technologies. With open source starting to lead in areas such as infrastructure software and scientific software, universities should be the one that are first at using and promoting open source software.

If the users start insisting on openness and transparency, it will become very hard for vendors to sell non-free software.

Why is there an idea that open source is a default choice for the next generation of computing?

Open source has been evolving rapidly over the last decade, and large companies such as Facebook, Google, and Amazon have been using and improving existing software to support their goals. For them, open source has been the better, faster, and cheaper alternative to traditional proprietary software, and they could also adapt it to their needs. However, more recently, innovative ideas started to emerge first in the open source software, and later the same capabilites appear in proprietary software. A good example of this is Docker, a container-based virtualization software.

Furthermore, generations of students that are in the universities now or have finished their studies in the last decade have been exposed to open source software rocking their world. They have seen the large transitions. From Firefox and Chrome destroying Internet Explorer, over Linux-based Android taking over the mobile market, to domain-specific scientific software also being open source and successful due to collaborative development model. Given the vendor lock-in inherent in proprietary software, it is really hard to see how can proprietary software development model survive in any area where the customer has choice between open source and proprietary software.

What is the connection between interoperability needs of contemporary cloud-based computing and open source?

Large amount of software today is delivered as "software as a service", i.e. what is colloquially called cloud computing. There is a large potential for vendor lock-in, since both the software itself and user data are managed by the software vendor. This is not to say that software as a service is bad per se; one should just be aware of the associated advantages and disadvantages compared to traditional software.

Open source software delivered as a service in a cloud has a number of advantages. Take Ghost for example, an open source blogging software. Ghost can be used as a service, with a monthly fee, but it can also be used as a self-hosted solution. The user has the choice where his software will be hosted, which is absent when the software is proprietary.

Is there something in the idea that it will become a bad business decision not to be OA/OS?

Possibly, and it will depend on what the users demand from software vendors. If the users start insisting on openness and transparency due to privacy and security concerns, it will become very hard for vendors to sell non-free software. So we could say that, should the users start to demand openness and transparency from their software vendors, selling non-free software would be a bad business decision.

Existing studies show that the open source software makes it easier to find and fix security issues.

Are open source software products easier targets for security issues? Are there ways for this to be avoided?

Existing studies such as [1] show the contrary to be true, that is, the open source software makes it easier to find and fix security issues. As an anecdotal example, there was a recent fiasco by Oracle, a prominent database software vendor. An Oracle employee published and later removed a blog post explaining that a user is not allowed to reverse-engineer their software to find security bugs. At the same time, EnterpriseDB, a prominent open source database software vendor providing support and services around PostgreSQL database software, actually invited the users to study PostgreSQL source code and find the security bugs so they can be fixed.

[1] Hoepman, Jaap-Henk and Jacobs, Bart. Increased security through open source. Communications of the ACM 50.1 (2007): 79--83.

Can you provide few good and up-to-date sources for anybody interested in the subject of Open access or open source?

For Open access, there is Open access at Oxford and a number of blogs tied to specific publishers, for example PeerJ Blog and The Official PLOS Blog.

For open source, there are the two news sites I personally follow on a regular basis: and Linux and Open Source section at ZDNet. Furthermore, nearly all tech sites that talk about the software also talk about the open source software. Finally, many of the large open source projects have "planets" where the developer blogs are aggregated; they are also interesting to follow.

Thank you, Vedran!