Re: A bit of bomb throwing....

From: Zack Rosen <>
Date: Wed, 18 Jan 2006 11:45:15 -0800

I am not advocating that research communities drop everything and
start hacking on open-source projects instead of publishing papers.
I'm trying to find a way for experimentation and R&D tool development
already being done (SIMILE, DSpace) to be more closely aligned with
the existing early adopter communities (Drupal, Wordpress,


On Jan 18, 2006, at 8:09 AM, David Karger wrote:

> I've seen several mentions in this thread of the idea that while
> the goal of the open source community is to build stuff (clearly a
> sign of brains and productivity), the goal of academics is to
> publish papers (clearly some vain form of social parasitism). As a
> parasite---er, academic---I assert that in fact both communities
> have the same goal, which is to make things better than they are
> now. We simply have different horizons. Open source is about the
> software that you can build right now. Academia is about the
> software that you might be able to build 5 or 10 years from now.
> The reason we write papers is that, by definition, the thing we are
> describing can't really be built right now. While research
> invariably involves building prototypes (such as my group's
> Haystack client), those prototypes are typically too fragile to
> deploy for broad use, because they are trying to do something that
> we don't fully understand how to do yet.
> Some may argue that if you can't build it for real now then there's
> no point in working on it at all, but I would say this is a lot
> like driving at night with your headlights off---sure you can see 2
> feet in front of the car, but is that really sufficient? You need
> to try out ideas to see them fail, so you can fix them, and it
> would really slow progess down if we only tried out ideas that were
> practical right now. Under the current research system, by the
> time something becomes practical, researchers have (hopefully)
> played around enough with it in its impractical stages to let us
> know how to build good solutions quickly. Just to snag one example
> that appeared on this thread, Timbl's creation of the web didn't
> just happen; it arose from a background of plenty of previous
> research on hypertext that did not result in broadly deployed
> systems, but that did produce a background of ideas that others
> could draw upon to build new artifacts.
> So yes, academics may suffer enough human vanity to be disappointed
> when their "pet algorithm is discarded in favor of something better
> for the product", but that is irrelevant to the broader goal of
> getting that algorithm out there so that it can be picked up and
> used 5 years from now when it is just the right thing for the next
> product.
> David Karger
> Professor, EECS
> MIT Computer Science and AI Laboratory
> 32 Vassar St.
> Cambridge, MA 02138
> Michael McDougall wrote:
>> Zack Rosen wrote:
>>> On Jan 17, 2006, at 1:44 PM, Prokopp, Christian wrote:
>>>> It sounds like you are fighting windmills. The modern economy
>>>> works the
>>>> way it does (early adopter problems etc.) and the university have
>>>> totally different interest than open source communities,
>>>> companies or
>>>> you and me. No one will change that (soon) for good reasons - it
>>>> is not
>>>> perfect but the best we know of.
>>> I have yet to hear an explanation for why academic research
>>> should not be applied towards real world problems in partnership
>>> with open-source communities other than 'this is just not the way
>>> things are done in academia'. Can someone please lay out the
>>> reasoning for me?
>> I thought I made it pretty clear.
>> - Different goals: academics want publishable advances in science,
>> while open source communities want to create usable tools. Quite
>> often, you don't need scientific advances to create usable tools,
>> you just need good engineering and design, which is not at all the
>> same thing. So an academic may work on the project just to see
>> their (scientifically legitimate) pet algorithm discarded in favor
>> of something better for the product. Or conversely, the open-
>> source developers may feel like they have to include complex
>> technology that users don't care about just to keep the scientists
>> happy. Open-source communities generate code, academics generate
>> papers.
>> - Coordinating with an outside group brings in extra overhead and
>> extra risk. I mentioned a couple scenarios above. You need to
>> monitor the mailing lists, and track all the changes that might
>> impact your research. If something needs to be implemented to fit
>> with your research project you have to convince other people to
>> merge that into the project. Like I mentioned above, it's possible
>> that the community will decide to move the project in a direction
>> that's bad for your research--what do you do then? What if the
>> head of the open-source community starts trashing your funding
>> agency in the national media?
>> I've seen research projects destroyed by these kinds of issues.
>> It's much easier for a researcher to create a small environment
>> where they own the code, they know all the people involved, and
>> everyone is working towards the same end (publishing papers).
>> I'm not saying academics should always hide from the world. If
>> their research project has common goals with some open-source
>> community, then maybe the extra overhead and risk is outweighed by
>> the benefits of real-world experience and users. Certainly, I
>> would rather see academics extend existing projects than duplicate
>> existing tools--and this seems to happening more often (there's a
>> ton of academic projects making Eclipse plugins, for example).
>> However, I understand that it's not always feasible for an
>> academic to align their research interests with the interests of
>> some open-source community.
>> Michael
>> Michael
Received on Wed Jan 18 2006 - 19:44:52 EST

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