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Open source ethics

31 March 2013

The question of ‘open access,’ of free access to scholarly material which is not held in proprietary licences and hidden behind paywalls and subscriptions fees, is a pressing one in both the digital humanities and the sciences. ‘Open science’ and ‘open humanities’ are frequently-heard battle cries. A less hot-button issue is the question of open source, of the nature of the licences which govern the computer programs we use. Being a movement heavily populated by ‘computer people,’ the world of the digital humanities is no stranger to the rallying cry for open source programs. The love of Linux, OpenOffice, Zotero, and Git runs deep within the movement. Yet the ethics of open source vs. proprietary programs is rarely, it seems to me, a topic of discussion. We who prefer open source go about using it, confident that we are the better for it. Those who don’t, don’t.

It may not shock you to learn that I am an advocate of open source programs. I use all but one of the programs I mentioned above (I prefer LibreOffice to OpenOffice), in addition to Firefox, Thunderbird, Gedit, GitHub, WordPress(!), Python, Rhythmbox, and various others. Many of these (Python, Firefox, Rhythmbox, and others) I use specifically because they are open source, rather than proprietary alternatives (though many popular proprietary programs, such as iTunes, are basically unavailable to me as an Ubuntu user). I am not, I hasten to add, the Richard Stallman [1] variety of open source advocate: damning all those whose licenses fall short of my own expectations, decrying as malware every program I do not like, and cursing those with the temerity to install proprietary programs on their Linux, Unix, or Solaris operating system.

It is my humble opinion that open sources software is to be preferred, but not adhered to fanatically, in digital humanities research. [2] My preference for open source follows from a belief that truly ‘open’ research is conducted with open tools: tools that can be acquired, employed, and adapted by other scholars. It also follows from the very real problem of lack of access to expensive research tools and it’s relationship to the increasing marketisation of academia and higher education. While simple market factors such as ‘how many books the library can afford’ have been endemic problems as long as there have been universities as we currently understand them, the rise of expensive, digital research tools has only increased the gap between rich and poor institutions and worsened the ever-increasing stratification of universities. While open source cannot solve this problem (the cost of hardware may never be a solvable problem), software can, at least, be democratised through open source licensing. When we employ open tools, such as R or Python and its various extended libraries (SciPy, NumPy, PyPy, nlptk, etc.), rather than closed tools such as MATLAB, we contribute to a more open academic culture in which more scholars can fruitful contribute to the creation and dissemination of knowledge.

Now, I readily acknowledge that open source is, simply, not always an option. My friends in the archaeology department often bemoan the lack of open source alternatives to the expensive, proprietary, Windows-only programs which their research requires them to employ. There are also occasions when the open source alternatives are not up to snuff. If such cases I will not excoriate those who chose closed programs over inadequate alternatives or opening up the code and tool-building. We’re not all tool-builders in the digital humanities, much as some prominent voices say we should be.

Do my fellows in the digital humanities community share my thoughts about the moral implications of open source software for our academic culture?

Notes and Bibliography

[1] President of the Free Software Foundation

[2] My feelings about the open web are much the same. I’m wholly in favour of maintaining a website on the open web rather than relying entirely on closed services like Facebook and Twitter but I wouldn’t advocate rejecting those closed services entirely because they’re useful communications and networking media.

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