Open Source Science: Karim Lakhani

Professor Karim Lakhani, co-founder of the MIT-based Open Source research community and web portal. He has studied extensively the emergence of OSS communities and their innovation and product development strategies, and investigated how knowledge from outside of the organization can be put to use inside for innovation.

Reading an interview with Lakhani,I enjoyed the following quotation,

People often think about open source as a special case, as if such openness can only happen in software.

Martha Lagace asked him how did he start to become interested in scientific problem solving

In open source communities we see a vast degree of openness in which everybody can participate, but also the practice of broadcasting your work to everybody else. People continually broadcast their problems, others broadcast solutions, and the person with the problem is not always the one with the solution. Oftentimes, somebody else can make sense of both what the problem has been and what people are proposing as solutions, and can come up with a better answer.

I also read a book by Dava Sobel about the longitude prize [Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of his Time]. Finding longitude at sea was one of the toughest economic, scientific, and technological problems up until the eighteenth century. Isaac Newton said the only way to solve the problem was through astronomical methods, but he was proven wrong because someone from rural Yorkshire, England, came up with a clock that could keep time at sea. Nobody had anticipated that that kind of invention was practical.

About the difference between problem solving within OS communities and scientific circles

Open source software developers are very pragmatic and focused on solving problems. Scientists are focused on problems too, but their priority is often publication and that can sometimes come in the way of openness and sharing. The ideals of science are, of course, openness, sharing, and no restrictions on the free flow of knowledge, but in practice that doesn’t happen much at all. Some scientists, however, are pushing back and many say they need to rethink how they conduct science.

About risks related to opening problems to people outside the organization

For firms, the first order risk is the loss of intellectual property, especially if you think about the fact that most firms and scientists believe that the problems they work on are actually their most important things. If you provide hints to competitors, it will reveal a lot of your strategy.

I think it’s a legitimate concern, although practice doesn’t prove that out in the sense that even if other people know about the problems you’re working on or have seen your solutions, it’s very hard to implement those solutions in other settings. Knowledge is actually very sticky. Even if you reveal everything about what’s going on, there’s tacit knowledge behind a lot of scientific and technological activities.

And the benefit of opening up your problems to outsiders is that in fact you can get novel solutions—quicker solutions than what the firm or R&D lab might develop. It also opens up new domains for the pursuit of knowledge and activities.

But it’s still a very counterintuitive way of working.

If you want to know more about outsiders, reputation and his research read the full story.