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A recent article in Wired showcased a trend in open source hardware, a surprising twist on the open source approach to collaborative work. The featured hardware is a microcontroller called the Arduino, a circuit board that can serve as a substrate for many small computing projects and products.
Developed by Italian and Spanish gearheads, the Arduino’s plans have been openly available, published through an Attribution-Share Alike Creative Commons license. The Arduino has been used in many settings, and can be manufactured to many specifications, but always turns out to be a cheap build.
Why would the inventors do this? Easy. The plans they’ve put out are basic, and now they’ve moved on. So, by creating interest in the Arduino and notoriety for themselves, they get hired to customize it, or to consult on how to use or implement it, or asked to do other things. Their renown grows significantly. It makes money for them indirectly, but reliably. It’s leveraging the network effect into PR.
How does this apply to scholarly publishing? In two possible ways, maybe more.
First Option: If we make publishers and articles analogous to hardware and software, we see some connections. It’s as if journals are the hardware and articles the software. Journals can be rolled out in a pretty templated way and are basically the same at most functional levels. But the applications derived from these (the articles) are what the users are really interested in. Each issue is akin to a software upgrade for some proportion of users.
In this model, the software of journals has much more churn than the software of computers (at least currently). We’ve had a major upgrade of publishing hardware, from paper to online. Are we writing software in the same old way? Are we using the hardware available to us to deliver our software effectively? Is our software even compatible?
Second Option: What the Arduino team has done is produce a basic output of their research efforts, something others can then apply to their own efforts. They give the basic output freely, to benefit the larger ecosystem and also because it draws attention to them, fits other ends, and increases their reputation and prestige among people they think are important. Sounds a lot like scholarly authors, doesn’t it? Their rewards are indirect, but very real, as the open source effort of scholarship yields tenure, further grants, and speaking engagements, among other things.
In either case, the outputs of scholarship are likely destined for more devices built on Arduinos and its cousins — small, niche devices with inexpensive separate parts but expensive syntheses, valuable when customized, and important to small groups of specialists.
Again, sound familiar?