Martin Pool and I recently discussed the similarities and differences between academia and open source programming.
- Cost profile Research and programming share approximately the same cost profile: A large upfront effort is required to produce something useful, and then “anyone” can use it. (The “anyone” is not quite right for either group because only sufficiently technical people could use it.)
- Wealth profile A “wealthy” academic or open source programmer is someone who has contributed a lot to other people in research or programs. Much of academia is a “gift culture”: whoever gives the most is most respected.
- Problems Both academia and open source programming suffer from similar problems.
- Whether or not (and which) open source program is used are perhaps too-often personality driven rather than driven by capability or usefulness. Similar phenomena can happen in academia with respect to directions of research.
- Funding is often a problem for both groups. Academics often invest many hours in writing grants while open source programmers simply often are not paid.
- Both groups of people work in a mixed competitive/collaborative environment.
- Both groups use conferences as a significant mechanism of communication.
Given the similarities, it is not too surprising that there is significant cooperation between academia and open source programming, and it is relatively common to crossover from one to the other.
The differences are perhaps more interesting to examine because they may point out where one group can learn from the other.
- A few open source projects have achieved significantly larger scales than academia as far as coordination amongst many people over a long time. Big project examples include linux, apache, and mozilla. Groups of people of this scale in academia are typically things like “the ICML community”, or “people working on Bayesian learning”, which are significantly less tightly coupled than any of the above projects. This suggests it may be possible to achieve significantly larger close collaborations in academia.
- Academia has managed to secure significantly more funding than open source programmers. Funding typically comes from a mixture of student tuition and government grants. Part of the reason for better funding in academia is that it has been around longer and so been able to accomplish more. Perhaps governments will start funding open source programming more seriously if they produce an equivalent (with respect to societal impact) of the atom bomb.
- Academia has a relatively standard career path: grade school education, undergraduate education, graduate education, then apply for a job as a professor at a university. In contrast the closest thing to a career path for open source programmers is something like “do a bunch of open source projects and become so wildly succesful that some company hires you to do the same thing”. This is a difficult path but perhaps it is slowly becoming easier and there is still much room for improvement.
- Open source programmers take significantly more advantage of modern tools for communication. As an example of this, Martin mentioned that perhaps half the people working on Ubuntu have blogs. In academia, they are still a rarity.
- Open source programmers have considerably more freedom of location. Academic research is almost always tied to a particular university or lab, while many people who work on open source projects can choose to live esssentially anywhere with reasonable internet access.