Scientific research fostered the Internet. Ironically, it may also be a threat to the Web as we know it.
Growing momentum behind scientific collaboration and the use of cloud services for research has fostered a backlash by companies threatened by the trend while exposing fundamental obstacles to online collaboration.
Let's start with the argument over Web access to information. As pointed out by Internet Evolution contributor George Taylor in his blog today, there's a movement under way to revise the age-old presentation of research results online. Traditionally, those results have appeared in papers gated by service providers demanding expensive subscriptions. As George notes, scientists and other interested parties are protesting that research results should be provided free, especially since the projects that yielded those results are often publicly funded.
It's an argument that's been going on for a while. In a column in the UK Guardian in December, George Monbiot railed against academic publishers who gate their research:
Who are the most ruthless capitalists in the western world? Whose monopolistic practices make Walmart look like a corner shop and Rupert Murdoch a socialist?... My vote goes not to the banks, the oil companies or the health insurers, but -- wait for it -- to academic publishers...
Reading a single article published by one of Elsevier's journals will cost you $31.50. Springer charges €34.95, Wiley-Blackwell, $42. Read 10 and you pay 10 times. And the journals retain perpetual copyright. You want to read a letter printed in 1981? That'll be $31.50.
Hand-in-glove with the issue of open access to scientific results is the issue of collaborative, cloud-based scientific facilities. After all, if one wants to keep data under expensive lock and key, it follows that there will be resistance to services that open up the research to wider participation and even to crowdsourcing.
But clouds loom for scientific research, despite the resistance. Back in 2010, the telecom analyst Bill St. Arnaud noted in a blog that universities had already begun to turn to cloud services as an alternative to expensive high-performance computing facilities. And last summer, the IT consultant Mary Shacklett cited the creation of enormous scientific networks to cope with vast amounts of data emitted by projects worldwide.
All this is accelerating moves to make clouds more secure and practical for scientific use, and sparks will probably fly as resistance builds from universities, publishers, and even cloud providers themselves.
As St. Arnaud wtore in an email to me today:
The roadblocks being thrown up by publishers such as Elsevier I don’t think will impact use of clouds by researchers. There are other issues such as data computability standards... Data stored in Amazon, for example, may not be compatible with formats used by Microsoft Azure.
As science continues to move toward the use of clouds and collaboration, the tension among various constituents is thrown into stark relief. At the same time, you can expect clouds and collaboration to produce some fascinating innovations.
— Mary Jander , Managing Editor, Internet Evolution