Computers, Programming and Free Information

I just read that the Max Planck Society discontinued its agreement with Elsevier and this sent me whirling back to a time when I was involved in research -- and that was the time when I gained even more of an appreciation for the programming community.

Back in university, I briefly came into contact with the world of academic research. I was a young EE student that was generously drafted into a real research team by two bold professors, who had the audacity to give me real research work to do, even though I was an undergrad. This actually resulted in published work -- one as a first author and several as a co-author -- all modest, but nothing to be ashamed of for someone who had not even earned their BSc yet.

It was quite the culture clash for me. When I finished high school, I had already been doing freelance work as a sysadmin and programmer for several years, and I enrolled in an EE program, hoping to gain a more in-depth understanding of the physical foundations of how computers work. So I was in a department that had nothing to do with computers, and my research work involved figuring out better ways to model and simulate how high-frequency integrated devices worked. I absolutely loved it, but it was quite foreign for someone who had worked with programmers and sysadmins so far, not professors and researchers.

Probably the biggest difference I faced was in how information was shared, and how this was regarded.

You see, the world I came from was extraordinarily relaxed about information sharing, and there was this idea that you should make as much information available, as easily available, as cheaply available as possible. That you should teach what you know to anyone who asks.

Some of the most fascinating things I know, and which I use every day to earn my bread, are things I learned for free, from places like TLDP. You can learn everything you ever wanted to know about Windows from a book that you can purchase from hundreds, if not thousands of shops. I got my copy when it was on sale for 20 USD, I think.

At that price -- unless you are enrolled in the right educational program -- publishers like Elsevier will maybe give you access to one particular paper. Not sell you the paper, mind you -- they will allow you to read it, but not lend it to someone else, for example.

Looking at my notes, it seems that I have read about 120 papers (give or take) during my two-year stint at the lab. Had my university not covered the subscription costs, there is certainly no way I could have afforded to read all of them in a pay-per-view scheme -- and I certainly could not afford a subscription on a student's budget.

And this is not the worst of it. One might argue that no one is entitled to reading other people's work for free. Fair enough.

But every single result I ever published came from work sponsored using public funds, done at a public university. Anyone who paid taxes (or at least any European who paid taxes) would rightfully be entitled to reading those results. They literally paid for them. But as far as I know, they can't.

This is a big part of why I support making scientific results accessible to as many people as possible, as cheaply as possible.

I am not a romantic idealist, I obviously understand that it takes money to do science. But I think it is in our interest to make it as easy as possible for anyone -- but especially students and scientists -- to get access to the results of science.

And there's more than just financial fairness here. Today, if you are a student working minimum wage to put yourself through school, you can learn how to write state-of-the-art distributed applications or operating systems almost for free. If you are a student working minimum wage to put yourself through school, learning about the state of the art in, say, solid-state physics, costs an order of magnitude more than what you make every month. Some, but not all universities can cover the costs, and this hinders progress a great deal.

Progress is not just a sum of theorems and graphs. Progress means lives that were saved, communities that put poverty behind them, children who got to grow up and have a better life than their parents

Who pays for the progress we failed to make because we were too greedy?