Remixing Science


For more than a decade, we’ve been waging a war on our kids in the name of the 20th Century’s model of “copyright law.” In this, the last of his books about copyright, Lawrence Lessig maps both a way back to the 19th century, and to the promise of the 21st. Our past teaches us about the value in “remix.” We need to relearn the lesson. The present teaches us about the potential in a new “hybrid economy” — one where commercial entities leverage value from sharing economies. That future will benefit both commerce and community. If the lawyers could get out of the way, it could be a future we could celebrate. - Remix Website

'The Calabash', collage by Romare Bearden, 1970, Library of Congress

In his book Remix, Lawrence Lessig documents two different cultures in today’s media landscape: A Read-Only (RO) culture that has historically been the business model of the publishing, broadcast, film and music industries, and a Read/Write (RW) culture that has been empowered by digital technologies. A read only culture consumes, providing big profits for large broadcast and publishing industries – think Hollywood, iTunes music and other strictly copyrighted art. But Lessig argues that it is important not to limit amateur creativity with overly strict copyright laws, in the “copyright wars” that have plagued the creative industry, artists and members of the general public in recent decades as digital technologies have increasingly made sharing and “remixing” possible. While Analog technology made sharing hard, digital technology has made it second nature.

Digital technology provides the tools for democratizing production and “remixing” of content. As Lessig seems to argue, it is the epitome of sharing, creativity and even knowledge and education for youth today. Lessig asks, are we going to keep pursuing the “copyright wars” of yesterday until the sharing and creative production that our youth know today as second nature essentially makes a majority of them criminals?

Many of Lessig’s arguments and points seem directly relevant to the world of science, from published scholarly scientific research, to the open peer-review process, to the advancement of scientific understanding through open and even sometimes necessarily critical collaboration and review of others’ findings. Science never operates, and indeed cannot operate, in a vacuum. What is science, if it is not “remixing,” contextualization and advancement of previous research findings? Indeed I think that if scientific research and data were “copyrighted” to the extent upheld by the film, broadcast and publishing industries of yesterday and today, true scientific advancement would be nearly impossible.

In his book Lessig talks about the blogosphere and the importance of open access, open commenting and peer sharing and rating of content (through sites such as Reddit and Digg) as being important components of a revived RW culture.

“There are two goods that remix creates, at least for us, or for our kids, at least now. One is the good of community. The other is education.” – Lessig, in Remix

But even these aspects of the online science environment can’t necessarily be taken for granted. Take Popular Science’s decision to shut off their comments, on the basis of internet trolls and the fact that “Comments can be bad for science.” Blog posts, especially posts about particular scientific research, exist in an ecosystem that is important to the overall interpretation of scientific findings (something that @BoraZ taught me). In my view, science content that is shut off from critical analysis by others, whether those others are scientists or members of the general public, is not sustainable, and does not live up to the “falsifiable” ideal of rigorous scientific study. Internet trolls or no, comment sections, especially for science writing, are an important component of an RW creative science culture, and for open and post-publication peer-review in general. It was a journalist, Brian Deer, who in the end effectively showed the extent of Andrew Wakefield’s fraud on the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine’s link to autism (doi:10.1136/bmj.c5347). What happens when journalists like Deer don’t have open access to published research, or even the data behind this research, or can’t comment on published articles online? Certainly in this case, effectively publicly showcasing scientific fraud would be much more difficult?

Lessig’s arguments in Remix also remind me of the Open Access “wars” waged between many scientific institutions and profitable journals, and scientists and science writers who wish scientific content to be freely available online.

AARON SWARTZ: There’s a battle going on right now, a battle to define everything that happens on the Internet in terms of traditional things that the law understands. Is sharing a video on BitTorrent like shoplifting from a movie store? Or is it like loaning a videotape to a friend? Is reloading a webpage over and over again like a peaceful virtual sit-in or a violent smashing of shop windows? Is the freedom to connect like freedom of speech or like the freedom to murder?”

One way we might revive an RW culture in science and science communication is by promoting open access to scientific research online, and open access to scientific data once research has been published.

Yet many scientists and academic institutions shy away from publishing open access and from making scientific data available online after publication goals have been met. I’ve had many professors tell me plain and simply that senior academic faculty may not “count” the research I publish open access in my tenure packet. How are academic institutions still getting away with this mentality? How can we see “copyrighted” scientific information as sustainable in a world of instant sharing and digital technology? I personally think science – and old-traditional academic institutions – would do better to think of scientific advancements in the future as relying heavily on a creative RW, open data, collaborative, open peer-review culture.

AARON SWARTZ: That is a legacy that has been brought to us by the history of people doing interesting work, the history of scientists. It’s a legacy that should belong to us as a commons, as a people, but instead it’s been locked up and put online by a handful of for-profit corporations who then try and get the maximum profit they can out of it. Now, there are people, good people, trying to change this with the open access movement. So, all journals, going forward, they’re encouraging them to publish their work as open access, so open on the Internet, available for download by everybody, available for free copying, and perhaps even modification with attribution and notice.”

In a world where many of our most pressing local and global issue are steeped in science, with effective solutions necessarily science-driven, how do we move forward without enhancing transparency, open access, data sharing, collaboration and open critical analysis of research and findings?


One Response to “Remixing Science”

  1. David Reply | Permalink

    I completely agree with the data part. In this day and age publishing an academic paper without making the data easily accessible should pretty much be a banned practice. Why isn't it? Is it just laziness or what? I can understand in the case of privacy concerns or in non-academic research, but otherwise I really don't get it.

    The whole publications themselves however I don't think should necessarily be free, because there is a cost to bear in the publishing itself.

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