Post Prediction Markets

How to be a democrat

Tuesday, January 3rd, 2012

How to be a dictator isn’t just about politics — or rather it is about politics, everywhere: “It doesn’t matter whether you are a dictator, a democratic leader, head of a charity or a sports organisation, the same things go on.”

The article ends with:

Dictators already know how to be dictators—they are very good at it. We want to point out how they do it so that it’s possible to think about reforms that can actually have meaningful consequences.

I don’t know what if any reforms the authors propose in their book, The Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics, but good on them encouraging a thinking in terms of meaningful consequences.

I see no hope for consequential progress against dictatorship in the United States. In 2007 I scored Obama and Biden very highly on their responses to a survey on executive power. Despite this, once in power, their administration has been a disaster, as Glenn Greenwald painstakingly and painfully documents.

I haven’t bothered scoring a 2011 candidates survey on executive power. I’m glad the NYT got responses from some of the candidates, but it seemed less interesting than four years ago, perhaps because only the Republican nomination is contested. My quick read: Paul’s answers seem acceptable, all others worship executive power. Huntsman’s answers seem a little more nuanced than the rest, but pointing in the same direction. Romney’s are in the middle of a very tight pack. In addition to evincing power worship, too many of Perry’s answers start with the exact same sentence, reinforcing the impression he’s not smart. Gingrich’s answers are the most brazen.

Other than envious destruction of power (the relevant definition and causes of which being tenuous, making effective action much harder) and gradual construction of alternatives, how can one be a democrat? I suspect more accurate information and more randomness are important — I’ll sometimes express this very specifically as enthusiasm for futarchy and sortition — but I’m also interested in whatever small increases in accurate information and randomness might be feasible, at every scale and granularity — global governance to small organizations, event probabilities to empirically validated practices.

Along the lines of the last, one of the few business books I’ve ever enjoyed is Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths And Total Nonsense: Profiting From Evidence-Based Management, much of which cuts against leadership cult myths. Coincidentally, one of that book’s co-authors recently blogged about evidence that random selection of leaders can enhance group performance.


Wednesday, July 27th, 2011

I backed Novacut’s first, unsuccessful, Kickstarter campaign last year because I think that new tools for distributed collaborative creation and curation are important to the success of free culture (which I just said is a lame name for intellectual freedom, but I digress) and Novacut’s description seemed to fit the bill:

We’re developing a free open-source video editor with a unique distributed design:

  • Distributed workflow – collaboratively edit video with other artists over the Internet
  • Distributed storage – seamlessly store and synchronize video files across multiple computers and the cloud
  • Distributed rendering – seamlessly spread rendering and encoding across multiple computers and the cloud

I didn’t investigate whether Novacut had a feasible plan. My pledge was an expressive vote for the concept of new tools for distributed collaboration.

Novacut is making another go of it at Kickstarter, and it looks like they’ll succeed. I just pledged again.

However, I’m saddened by how much of philanthropy is not also carefully instrumental. The only low barrier way to move in this direction (I’d prefer futarchist charity) that I know of is criticism, so hats off to Danny Piccirillo for his criticism of Novacut fundraising. I’m further saddened that such criticism is not welcomed. I would be honored that someone found a project I am involved in or a fan of worth the time to criticize and thankful for the free publicity.

Now, I’m looking forward to see what Novacut delivers, and/or what Novacut ideas other video editor projects implement.

Speaking of delivery, I noticed today a new crowdfunding site targeting free software and Brazil, makeITopen. According to a writeup, it appears to have a couple interesting twists. Projects that do not reach their thresholds have donations not fully returned to donors, but only as credits within the system (unlike Kickstarter and others, where pledges are not collected until a project has reached its threshold). More interestingly, there is a process for donors to approve (or not) the software delivered by the project. This sort of thing is probably hard to get right, and I fully expect makeITopen to fail, but I hope it is hugely successful, and think that getting approval right could be very useful. At least for donors who wish to be instrumental.

Addendum 20110730: The best two comments on the Novacut criticism kerfuffle: Jono Bacon saying be calm, but onus is on Novacut to explain, and Jason Gerard DeRose (Novacut lead), explaining how Novacut’s intended high-end userbase demands a different program than do casual video editors, and that there’s plenty of scope for cooperation on underlying components. Congratulations to Novacut for meeting its Kickstarter threshold, and good luck to Novacut, (the working editor many critics advocated directing resources toward), and and Gnonlin (two underlying components in common). Onward to killing King Kong with FLOSS.

NYT digital subscription plans as Kickstarter project backer levels

Saturday, March 19th, 2011

Apart from curiosity about what the New York Times forecasts for the project and how they arrived at same, I really don’t care one way or the other about the upcoming New York Times paywall.

However, the paywall’s convoluted pricing cries out for taking the form of Kickstarter project backer levels. I haven’t done justice to the NYT plan and have done injustice to well-crafted Kickstarter project backer levels I recently admired. Apologies to all.

NYT Paywall as Kickstarter Levels

Addendum 2011-03-22: Thanks to Kickstarter for appreciating and blogging about this post. I didn’t mean to suggest “the whole thing would work best as a Kickstarter project: funding goal + tiered reward options + the assurance that you will only be charged if they do indeed survive the death of print/revolt of the internet” but that’s certainly correct! For some of the reasons why, extrapolate from Timothy B. Lee’s two recent posts on the paywall, Shoe-Leather Reporting at the New York Times and Misguided Moralism in the Paywall Debate. For a future with good journalism, Kickstarter is of far more relevance than any paywall.

Notability, deletionism, inclusionism, ∞³

Tuesday, January 4th, 2011

For the past couple years there has been an in English Wikipedia (archived version). It is an ok article. Some that I’d include isn’t, and some of what is seems kind of tangential, e.g., talking at a NASA event, that besides a citation, netted spending the day with an unholy mix of the usual social media suspects and entirely retrograde “we gotta put man humans into space because it makes me feel proud to be an American and my daughter might do her math homework!!!” boosters (get real: go robots!) and a sketch. However, overall it is fairly evocative, even the NASA event part. It would be uncool of me to edit it directly, and I’ve been curious to see how it would be improved, translated, vandalized, or deleted, so I haven’t made suggestions. It has mostly just sat there, though it has been curious to see the content copied in various places where Wikipedia content gets copied, and that a fair proportion of the people I meet note that I “have a Wikipedia page” — that’s kind of the wrong way to think about it (Wikipedia articles have subjects, not owners), but good to know that people can use web search (and that I can tend toward the pedantic).

!#@!@^% deletionists are ruining Wikipedia. They’ll be the first against the wall when the revolution comes.

The one thing that I have said about the article about me on English Wikipedia, until now, has been this, on my (not precisely, but moreso “mine”) user page on English Wikipedia: “I am the subject of Mike Linksvayer, which I would strongly advocate deleting if I were a deletionist (be my guest).” I’ve thought about pulling some kind of stunt around this, for example, setting up a prediction market contract on whether the article about me would be deleted in a given timeframe, but never got around to it. Anyway, last week someone finally added an Articles for Deletion notice to the article, which sets up a process involving discussion of whether the article ought be deleted (crickets so far). When rough consensus is reached, an admin will delete the article, or the notice will be removed.

I’m not a fan of deletionism (more below), but given the current rules around notability, I am either somewhat questionable as an English Wikipedia article subject (using the general, easy to interpret charitably summary of notability: “A person is presumed to be notable if he or she has received significant coverage in reliable secondary sources that are independent of the subject.”) to unquestionably non-notable (any less charitable interpretation, which presumably any “deletionist” would use, thus my user page statement). The person who added the Articles for Deletion notice may not have done any research beyond what is already linked in the article (more on that general case below), but I must admit, his critique of the citations in the article, are fairly evocative, just as the article is:

We have three sources from Creative Commons (primary), a paragraph in a CNET news article where he does his job and encourages scientists to use CC licenses, one IHT article about veganism that mentions him for a couple of paragraphs, and a link to his Wikipedia userpage. That is not enough for notability, in my opinion.

The IHT (actually first in the NYT) article was about calorie restriction, not veganism, but that’s a nitpick. Most of the “media” items my name has appeared in are indeed about Creative Commons, i.e., me doing my job, not me as primary subject, or in a few cases, about calorie restriction, with me as a prop. Or they’re blogs — ok that one is even less notable than most blogs, but at least it’s funny, and relevant — and podcasts. The only item (apart from silly blog posts) that I’ve appeared in that I’m fond of and would be tickled if added as a reference if the current article about me squeaks by or some future article in the event I as a subject become a no-brainer (clearly I aim to, e.g., “[make] a widely recognized contribution that is part of the enduring historical record in his or her specific field”, but even more clearly I haven’t achieved this) is in Swedish (and is still about me doing my job, though perhaps going off-message): check out an English machine translation.

I’m not a fan of deletionism, largely because, as I’ve stated many times, thinking of Wikipedias as encyclopedias doesn’t do the former justice — Wikipedia has exploded the “encyclopedia” category, and that’s a wonderful thing. Wikipedias (and other Wikimedia projects, and projects elsewhere with WikiNature) need to go much further if freedom is to win — but I’m partisan in this, and can appreciate that others appreciate the idea that Wikipedias stick close to the category defined by print encyclopedias, including strong limits on what might be considered encyclopedic.

It also strikes me that if Wikimedia movement priorities include increasing readership and participation that inclusionism is the way to go — greatly increase the scope of material people can find and participate in building. However, I’m not saying anything remotely new — see Deletionism and inclusionism in Wikipedia.

Although I’m “not a fan” I don’t really know how big of a problem deletionism is. In my limited experience, dealing with an Articles for Deletion notice on an article I’ve contributed to is a pain, sometimes motivates substantially improving the article in question, and is generally a bummer when a useful, factual article is deleted — but it isn’t a huge part of the English Wikipedia editing experience.

Furthermore, reading guidelines on notability closely again, they’re more reasonable than I recall — that is, very reasonable, just not the radical inclusionism I prefer. To the extent that deletionism is a problem, my guess now is that it could be mitigated by following the guidelines more closely, not loosening them — start with adding a {{notability}} tag, not an Articles for Deletion notice, ask for advice on finding good sources, and make a good faith effort to find good sources — especially for contemporary subjects, it’s really simple with news/web/scholar/book/video search from Google and near peers. I’m sure this is done in the vast majority of cases — still, in the occasional case when it isn’t done, and initial attempts to find sources and improve an article are being made during an Articles for Deletion discussion, is kind of annoying.

I also wrote some time ago when thinking about notability the not-to-be-taken-very-seriously Article of the Unknown Notable, which I should probably move elsewhere.

The delicious “dialectical inclusionism” quote above is from Gordon Mohr. Coincidentally, today he announced ∞³, a project “to create an avowedly inclusionist complement to Wikipedia”. There’s much smartness in his post, and this one is already long, so I’m going to quote the entire thing:

Introducing Infinithree (“∞³”)

Wikipedia deletionism is like the weather: people complain, but nobody is doing anything about it. 

I’d like to change that, working with others to create an avowedly inclusionist complement to Wikipedia, launching in 2011. My code name for this project is ‘Infinithree’ (‘∞³’), and this blog exists to collaborate on its creation.

Why, you may ask?

I’ll explain more in future posts – but in a nutshell, I believe deletionism erases true & useful reference knowledge, drives away contributors, and surrenders key topics to cynical spammy web content mills.

If you can already appreciate the value and urgency of this sort of project, I’m looking for you. Here are the broad outlines of my working assumptions:

Infinithree will use the same open license and a similar anyone-can-edit wiki model as Wikipedia, but will discard ‘notability’ and other ‘encyclopedic’ standards in favor of ‘true and useful’.

Infinithree is not a fork and won’t simply redeploy MediaWiki software with inclusionist groundrules. That’s been tried a few times, and has been moribund each time. Negative allelopathy from Wikipedia itself dooms any almost-but-not-quite-Wikipedia; a new effort must set down its roots farther afield.

Infinithree will use participatory designs from the social web, rather than wikibureacracy, to accrete reliable knowledge. Think StackOverflow or Quora, but creating declarative reference content, rather than interrogative transcripts.

Sound interesting? Can you help? Please let me know what you think, retweet liberally, and refer others who may be interested.

For updates, follow @_infinithree on Twitter (note the leading underscore) or @infinithree on

Infinithree is already very interesting as a concept, and I’m confident in Gordon’s ability to make it non-vapor and extremely interesting (I was one of his co-founders at the early open content/data/mass collaboration service Bitzi — 10 years ago, hard to believe). There is ample opportunity to try different mass collaboration arrangements to create free knowledge. Many have thought about how to tweak Wikipedia culture or software to produce different outcomes, or merely to experiment (I admit that too much of my plodding pondering on the matter involves the public domain↔strong copyleft dimension). I’m glad that Gordon intends ∞³ to be different enough from Wikipedia such that more of the vast unexplored terrain gets mapped, and hopefully exploited. As far as I know is probably the most relevant attempt so far. May there be many more.

Dear Jean Quan,

Sunday, January 2nd, 2011

Congratulations on your election and tomorrow’s inauguration as Oakland mayor.

I ranked ahead of you, but in truth my expressive rationale for doing so could just as well have favored you: a progressive Asian American woman represents a defining characteristic of what makes Oakland special and its future just as much as does a green lesbian (who is also an American and a woman, but such is identity politics).

Expressiveness aside, expectations for positive outcomes from your term as mayor are pretty low (note emphasis on outcomes; everyone knows you’ll put in more hours than recent Oakland mayors). Oakland still has a terrible crime problem, and city finances are beyond terrible. I suspect if there were betting markets on outcomes related to these problems, current prices would predict that under your leadership crime will get worse (relative to comparable cities; of course national trends may determine absolute direction of change), chief police will quit, the city will teeter on bankruptcy, your response will be to ‘social program us to death’, and you will be a one term mayor, succeeded by Kaplan, Joe Tuman, or .

Low expectations can be a blessing, if you’re willing to take steps to smash them and secure your re-election and legacy as Oakland’s most successful mayor in decades.

First, crime. Blaming the problem on poverty, racism, poor schools, unemployment, etc., isn’t going to cut it, neither as discourse nor as the stereotypical actions resulting, loosely characterized as “building youth centers”. Most voters aren’t that stupid (well, they are, but in other directions when it comes to crime). Fortunately, one can be a good progressive, acknowledge that crime is a major problem, especially for the disadvantaged, and take smart, progressive-compatible steps to smash crime. Check out Progressive Change Campaign Committee co-founder Aaron Swartz’s essay on crime:

Such things are a frustration for white suburbanites, but for poor people stuck in the ghetto, they’re a nightmare. Crime is yet another disadvantage and a particularly noxious one at that. Even aside from all the other indignities suffered by the poor, just imagining life in a crime-ridden neighborhood is enough to make your skin crawl.

So there’s the question: How can we have less crime with less punishment?

Here are the no-brainer steps you can take on crime:

  • Do not get caught saying anything that could be construed as “blaming society” for the problem or that the solution consists of “building youth centers”.
  • Work with Batts to actually fight crime; defer to his expertise at every opportunity.
  • Provide high-minded leadership on protecting civil liberties; on this defer to nobody. However, limit riot-bait to national and global issues. For example, city proclamations calling for bringing George W. Bush to justice and the like will only cause rioting on right-wing talk radio, leaving Oakland neighborhoods and businesses unscathed.

Next, finances. Similarly no-brainer suggestions:

  • Repeat early, loudly, and clearly that Oakland has an unsustainable spending problem, and everyone, especially your loyal allies in and funded by city government, are going to feel immediate pain.
  • Immediately push through cuts, primarily to areas you favor politically, sparing police and maintenance as much as possible.
  • Immediately push through revenue increases, e.g., tackle mis- and under-priced parking.

Beyond the above mandatory issues, a few less pressing but visionary actions for you to consider adding to your mayoral legacy:

  • Do everything you can to signal (and perhaps do a little of substance too) that you believe Oakland is the eco-city of the future, urban permaculture doers are heroes, and Oakland should be the world leader in marijuana business and education. Each of these increases Oakland’s specialness, and eliminates any future challenge from Kaplan. (If you’re moderately successful on the two major issues above, you also eliminate any traction Tauman or Russo might otherwise gain during your first term.)
  • Make Oakland the leader in “open” policy. There are obvious opportunities around city data, software procurement, and open licensing of city publications. The last would even help improve the article about you on Wikipedia. ☺ I and many other technology professionals and advocates of openness who live in Oakland would love to help. Some of us work for Creative Commons and other organizations with deep expertise in this area.
  • In another decade, autonomous vehicles will reshape cities. Establish some kind of an unpaid citizens committee to investigate how Oakland can prepare.

Here’s to great outcomes for Oakland, and your incredible success as mayor!

Mike Linksvayer
Golden Gate District, Oakland

Yet Another Biaxial Political Spectrum

Sunday, November 21st, 2010

Thought of while microblogging (emphasis added):

@glynmoody … I find it nice that movement gelling on both govt-skeptic and market-skeptic sides eg and

As one moves toward increasing skepticism of both mechanisms, one might focus more on institutional design (wherein there is a huge space for exploration: two areas I’ve occasionally rambled about are commons and futarchy, both applicable to arrangements across state and market), as everything is broken and needs fixing. If one is much more skeptical about one mechanism than the other, one will assume the more confidence-inspiring mechanism will adequately check any problems of the other — e.g., so-called Masonomics:

At the University of Chicago, economists lean to the right of the economics profession. They are known for saying, in effect, “Markets work well. Use the market.”

At MIT and other bastions of mainstream economics, most economists are to the left of center but to the right of the academic community as a whole. These economists are known for saying, in effect, “Markets fail. Use government.”

Masonomics says, “Markets fail. Use markets.”

Presumably the prototypical Masonomist on the above spectrum would be far on the left (extremely skeptical of the state) and in the middle (somewhat skeptical of markets), leading such a person to always favor market solutions (the state being a lost cause), with more emphasis on the design of market institutions than someone merely confident in the market and skeptical of the state might. Schools of socialism that roughly mirror Masonomics must exist — “Governments fail. Use government [carefully].” — I just don’t know their names, so I put “rational socialism” on the spectrum.

It seems that from many places on the spectrum, one might beneficially increase skepticism of one’s preferred mechanism, so as to focus on making that mechanism work better, and thus “win” more in the long term. Admittedly, this might seem an awful tradeoff for an activist focused on bashing (whatever they see as) evil in the short term. Further, one genuinely interested in improving the world as opposed to making ideological points might focus on improving mechanisms that make criticism and improvement of all mechanisms easier (nothing remotely new about this observation) — these are public goods that facilitate the provision of more public goods.

Completely coincidentally (noted while writing this post), died today. His name is associated with a fairly well known . Nolan also founded the strategically unsound U.S. Libertarian Party. If it mattered at all, and weren’t in bad taste, I’d suggest it die with him!

19th & Kaplan

Tuesday, November 2nd, 2010

Only two endorsements this (U.S.) election, mostly because I haven’t been paying very close attention. Most importantly, for , the Regulate, Control and Tax Cannabis Act of 2010. Stop throwing people in prison over this. Full stop.

Unfortunately recent polls indicate fading support for the initiative. Presumably this is mainly what is reflected by traders, among whom the consensus seems to discount a “Broadus Effect”:

Sadly no contracts are conditioned on the outcome.

Choices in the Oakland (where I’ve lived for almost exactly two years) mayoral race are underwhelming. “V Smoothe” of the excellent A Better Oakland blog (recommended for residents; the only Oakland-centric blog I’ve followed for any length of time … for that matter, the only Oakland-centric news source, not counting a neighborhood mailing list and the only somewhat Oakland-centric East Bay Express) has posted take-downs of leading candidates Rebecca Kaplan (ineffective), Jean Quan (I’d bet on increased probability of bankruptcy), Joe Tuman (ignorant), and is supporting the frontrunner, Don Perata, a leading symbol of corruption in the Bay Area, and a lobbyist for California prison guards, roughly on the grounds that only he can get stuff done and his faults can be explained away.

I don’t have much confidence that Perata would “get stuff done” and even lower confidence that whatever he got done would have good outcomes. Given lack of anyone with an obviously stellar, or even realistic, policy portfolio, I’m discounting projected ability (or lack thereof) to “get stuff done” and rationally indulging in an expressive vote, for — simultaneously the most unusual, and most stereotypically Oakland, of the leading candidates — lesbian, green (formerly Green), and for marijuana legalization.

Oakland has more lesbian couples per capita than any other big city in the U.S. (though Oakland isn’t exactly big) and if Kaplan were elected would as far as I know one of a very few lesbian mayors of significant cities in the U.S. (though way behind the actual big city of ), and is known for being a center of environmental activism of both the political and urban homesteading sorts and as .

I have a weak preference for a jurisdiction to accentuate whatever distinguishing characteristics it has, excepting wholly negative ones (e.g., crime, and gross corruption and incompetence). Kaplan will best accentuate (or rather signal; remember this is an expressive vote) the relatively neutral to good qualities of Oakland (yes, the whether is fantastic, and out of mayoral control) and doesn’t seem likely to cause exacerbation its wholly negative qualities.

(I haven’t investigated closely, but at a glance there doesn’t seem to be a worthy protest vote among those with almost no support in polls — to the contrary, they seem to be a rouge’s gallery of idiots, liars, and stooges — worse than most of the leading candidates. 19th & Kaplan doesn’t seem to exist anywhere, but it’s a intersection in a fictional Oakland.)

54% chance of marijuana legalization, what chance of crime wave?

Monday, May 17th, 2010

My favorite local weekly, the (I loved their print design and long-form stories in the 1990s; after a couple ownership changes they are still good for other reasons, e.g., prolific reporter Robert Gammon) has a story (actually a blog entry, hopefully something of it makes it to print) that very concisely describes prediction markets and states that “TaxCannabis2010 is currently predicted to win” by traders at Intrade.

I’m happy to see EBX cite Intrade and that the is predicted to win, with two caveats.

The market currently gives the initiative a 54% chance of winning. That means a 46% chance of losing. Not remotely a sure thing. Closing prices chart below.

It’s utterly ridiculous to put marijuana users, farmers, sellers, etc. in jail. But this is not obvious to a number of people, or marijuana would not be illegal. I will be surprised if anti-initiative ads will claim that marijuana legalization will lead to an increase in cocaine use, a crime wave, decrease in test scores, and more. So what would really make me happy with regards to prediction markets and citation of the same would be contracts on cocaine use etc. in California conditioned on whether the initiative wins.

Collaborative Futures 3

Thursday, January 21st, 2010

Day 3 of the Collaborative Futures book sprint and we’re close to 20,000 words. I added another chapter intended for the “future” section, current draft copied below. It is very much a scattershot survey based on my paying partial attention for several years. There’s nothing remotely new apart from recording a favorite quote from my colleague John Wilbanks that doesn’t seem to have been written down before.

Continuing a tradition, another observation about the sprint group and its discussions: an obsession with attribution. A current drafts says attribution is “not only socially acceptable and morally correct, it is also intelligent.” People love talking about this and glomming on all kinds of other issues including participation and identity. I’m counter-obsessed (which Michael Mandiberg pointed out means I’m still obsessed).

Attribution is only interesting to me insofar as it is a side effect (and thus low cost) and adds non-moralistic value. In the ideal case, it is automated, as in the revision histories of wiki articles and version control systems. In the more common case, adding attribution information is a service to the reader — nevermind the author being attributed.

I’m also interested in attribution (and similar) metadata that can easily be copied with a work, making its use closer to automated — Creative Commons provides such metadata if a user choosing a license provides attribution information and CC license deeds use that metadata to provide copy&pastable attribution HTML, hopefully starting a beneficient cycle.

Admittedly I’ve also said many times that I think attribution, or rather requiring (or merely providing in the case of public domain content) attribution by link specifically, is an undersold term of the Creative Commons licenses — links are the currency of the web, and this is an easy way to say “please use my work and link to me!”

Mushon Zer-Aviv continues his tradition for day 3 of a funny and observant post, but note that he conflates attribution and licensing, perhaps to make a point:

The people in the room have quite strong feelings about concepts of attribution. What is pretty obvious by now is that both those who elevate the importance of proper crediting to the success of collaboration and those who dismiss it all together are both quite equally obsessed about it. The attribution we chose for the book is CC-BY-SA oh and maybe GPL too… Not sure… Actually, I guess I am not the most attribution obsessed guy in the room.

Science 2.0

Science is a prototypical example of collaboration, from closely coupled collaboration within a lab to the very loosely coupled collaboration of the grant scientific enterprise over centuries. However, science has been slow to adopt modern tools and methods for collaboration. Efforts to adopt or translate new tools and methods have been broadly (and loosely) characterized as “Science 2.0” and “Open Science”, very roughly corresponding to “Web 2.0” and “Open Source”.

Open Access (OA) publishing is an effort to remove a major barrier to distributed collaboration in science — the high price of journal articles, effectively limiting access to researchers affiliated with wealthy institutions. Access to Knowledge (A2K) emphasizes the equality and social justice aspects of opening access to the scientific literature.

The OA movement has met with substantial and increasing success recently. The Directory of Open Access Journals (see lists 4583 journals as of 2010-01-20. The Public Library of Science’s top journals are in the first tier of publications in their fields. Traditional publishers are investing in OA, such as Springer’s acquisition of large OA publisher BioMed Central, or experimenting with OA, for example Nature Precedings.

In the longer term OA may lead to improving the methods of scientific collaboration, eg peer review, and allowing new forms of meta-collaboration. An early example of the former is PLoS ONE, a rethinking of the journal as an electronic publication without a limitation on the number of articles published and with the addition of user rating and commenting. An example of the latter would be machine analysis and indexing of journal articles, potentially allowing all scientific literature to be treated as a database, and therefore queryable — at least all OA literature. These more sophisticated applications of OA often require not just access, but permission to redistribute and manipulate, thus a rapid movement to publication under a Creative Commons license that permits any use with attribution — a practice followed by both PLoS and BioMed Central.

Scientists have also adopted web tools to enhance collaboration within a working group as well as to facilitate distributed collaboration. Wikis and blogs have been purposed as as open lab notebooks under the rubric of “Open Notebook Science”. Connotea is a tagging platform (they call it “reference management”) for scientists. These tools help “scale up” and direct the scientific conversation, as explained by Michael Nielsen:

You can think of blogs as a way of scaling up scientific conversation, so that conversations can become widely distributed in both time and space. Instead of just a few people listening as Terry Tao muses aloud in the hall or the seminar room about the Navier-Stokes equations, why not have a few thousand talented people listen in? Why not enable the most insightful to contribute their insights back?

Stepping back, what tools like blogs, open notebooks and their descendants enable is filtered access to new sources of information, and to new conversation. The net result is a restructuring of expert attention. This is important because expert attention is the ultimate scarce resource in scientific research, and the more efficiently it can be allocated, the faster science can progress.

Michael Nielsen, “Doing science online”,

OA and adoption of web tools are only the first steps toward utilizing digital networks for scientific collaboration. Science is increasingly computational and data-intensive: access to a completed journal article may not contribute much to allowing other researcher’s to build upon one’s work — that requires publication of all code and data used during the research used to produce the paper. Publishing the entire “resarch compendium” under apprpriate terms (eg usually public domain for data, a free software license for software, and a liberal Creative Commons license for articles and other content) and in open formats has recently been called “reproducible research” — in computational fields, the publication of such a compendium gives other researches all of the tools they need to build upon one’s work.

Standards are also very important for enabling scientific collaboration, and not just coarse standards like RSS. The Semantic Web and in particular ontologies have sometimes been ridiculed by consumer web developers, but they are necessary for science. How can one treat the world’s scientific literature as a database if it isn’t possible to identify, for example, a specific chemical or gene, and agree on a name for the chemical or gene in question that different programs can use interoperably? The biological sciences have taken a lead in implementation of semantic technologies, from ontology development and semantic databsases to inline web page annotation using RDFa.

Of course all of science, even most of science, isn’t digital. Collaboration may require sharing of physical materials. But just as online stores make shopping easier, digital tools can make sharing of scientific materials easier. One example is the development of standardized Materials Transfer Agreements accompanied by web-based applications and metadata, potentially a vast improvement over the current choice between ad hoc sharing and highly bureaucratized distribution channels.

Somewhere between open science and business (both as in for-profit business and business as usual) is “Open Innovation” which refers to a collection of tools and methods for enabling more collaboration, for example crowdsourcing of research expertise (a company called InnoCentive is a leader here), patent pools, end-user innovation (documented especially by Erik von Hippel in Democratizing Innovation), and wisdom of the crowds methods such as prediction markets.

Reputation is an important question for many forms of collaboration, but particularly in science, where careers are determined primarily by one narrow metric of reputation — publication. If the above phenomena are to reach their full potential, they will have to be aligned with scientific career incentives. This means new reputation systems that take into account, for example, re-use of published data and code, and the impact of granular online contributions, must be developed and adopted.

From the grand scientific enterprise to business enterprise modern collaboration tools hold great promise for increasing the rate of discovery, which sounds prosaic, but may be our best tool for solving our most vexing problems. John Wilbanks, Vice President for Science at Creative Commons often makes the point like this: “We don’t have any idea how to solve cancer, so all we can do is increase the rate of discovery so as to increase the probability we’ll make a breakthrough.”

Science 2.0 also holds great promise for allowing the public to access current science, and even in some cases collaborate with professional researchers. The effort to apply modern collaboration tools to science may even increase the rate of discovery of innovations in collaboration!


Tuesday, October 6th, 2009

AcaWiki officiously launches tomorrow. The goal is to make academic knowledge more accessible through wiki community curated article “summaries” — something like long abstracts aimed at a general audience rather than specialists.

This could be seen as an end-run around access and copyright restrictions (the Open Access movement has made tremendous progress though there is still much to be done), but AcaWiki is a very partial solution to that problem — sometimes an article summary (assuming AcaWiki has one) would be enough, though often a researcher would still need access to the full paper (and the full dataset, but that’s another battle).

More interesting to me is the potential for AcaWiki summaries to increase the impact of research by making it more accessible in another way — comprehensible to non-specialists and approachable by non-speedreaders. I read a fair number of academic papers and many more get left on my reading queue unread. A “human readable” distillation of the key points of articles (abstracts typically convey next to nothing or are filled with jargon) would really let me ingest more.

Probably the closest things to AcaWiki summaries are Research Blogging and the idea that journal authors should contribute to Wikipedia. While both of these are great, blog posts don’t obtain the benefits (and costs) of distributed authoring and maintenance and direct contribution of research to Wikipedia has very limited applicability. So I think AcaWiki can make a big contribution. It could turn out that some granularity other than individual article summary is the sweet spot for community curation of academic knowledge — one could imagine field and sub-field and sub-sub-field surveys organized in WikiProject†† fashion as that — but article summaries are a very concrete place to begin, and more should naturally grow out of the AcaWiki community’s efforts to figure out the best ways to create and organize article summaries.

I’ve written a summary of Steven Levitt’s Why are Gambling Markets Organised So Differently from Financial Markets? I’d be really appreciative of article summaries in the following categories:

I’ve been somewhat involved in AcaWiki over the past year — I’m on its board and Creative Commons has done some technology consulting on the project, credit to Nathan and bits from Steren, Nathan K, Alex and Parker — and note that Neeru Paharia, AcaWiki’s founder, was one of CC’s earliest employees. AcaWiki summaries are of course contributed under a CC Attribution license, so you can do anything you want with them so long as you link back to the summary.

††I urge anyone not already impressed by the contribution of WikiProjects on Wikipedia or generally interested in community curation and quality to check out Martin Walker’s WikiProjects: Improving Wikipedia by organising and assessing articles presented at Wikimania 2009.