Conway’s Law and Open Science: Why it feels like something’s fundamentally not right

Some very quick notes on some reading I’ve been doing today on Conway’s law

The law basically has to do with the way organisational structures reflect themselves in the products they produce (also known as “mirroring”). So, to give a common example, corporate websites usually reflect the interests and organisational structures of the corporation rather than the information needs of the website visitor: a statement from the president welcoming you (who ever goes to a website for that?), tasks and locations grouped by reporting line rather than relevance to topic or user, and so on (Nielsen also makes this point in Designing Web Usability).

There are many different formulations of this law, ranging from the very software-specific to the very general. One interesting one, however, is in Coplien and Harrison’s Organizational Patterns of Agile Software Development:

If the parts of an organization—such as teams, departments, or subdivisions—do not closely reflect theessential parts of the product, or if the relationships between organizations do not reflect the relationships between product parts, then the project will be in trouble. Coplien and Harrison 2005, 5.1.7 p. 246

This is interesting because it is almost the inverse: that is to say, it argues that successful projects will have their optimal form reflected in the organisation of the producers, rather than (as seems normally to be argued) that the organisational structure of the producers will necessarily reflect itself in the product. I’m not sure that this is true of everything, as, for example, it seems to me to be very very platonic to assume that there is an ideal optimal form to the corporate website.

What really struck me today, however, is the way this does help explain two things I’ve been thinking about a lot lately:

  1. how disruption works and why it hasn’t really happened in Scholarly and Scientific Communication to the same degree it has in other industries; and
  2. why it seems to seem to so many like this lack of disruption in Scholarly and Scientific Communication is evidence of a deeper systemic problem in Science and Scholarship.

There are lots of reasons why both of these are (or seem to be) true: oligarchic behaviour on the part of a small number of publishers, the existence of a third-party-payer problem in library acquisitions (i.e. librarians are pressured to buy what faculty want and so less able to constrain costs or engage in best practice), the use of an apprentice system to teaching scholarly communication in most graduate schools, and so on.

Conway’s law, however, provides a high-level theory for understanding why the lack of disruption is surprising in some ways (and not in others) and, particularly, why it feels like the time is ripening for some fundamental change in how we do science.

In short (this is a note to myself rather than a publication, after all), the basic idea is that Science and Scholarship is currently organised in a way that reflects the product it used to produce: print-era dissemination that was non-rivalrous but excludable (a club good, as Potts et al have argued). Science was also organised this way: the reward systems were all set up to reward exclusivity: the journals that were the best established, most selective, and most-widely read, and so on.

The web, however, was designed to make scholarly and scientific communication non-rivalrous and non-exclusionary (a true public good). Our sense that there’s something wrong with how we do science today, in this understanding, stems from the fact that while the product has changed (from club good to public good), the reward system, traditions, and organisation of the scientists has not.

Our “project [is] in trouble,” therefore, because the organisation no longer “reflects the essential parts of the project… or the relationships between product parts.” I.e. we haven’t had a reorganisation that reflects the change in the nature of the product. And while I don’t think there is necessarily an ideal, fundamental, or underlying form for a corporate website, I think there might well be an ideal form for the product of web-based science: Findable, Accessible, Interoperable, and Re-usable.

Finally, this seems to me to explain how disruption actually happens when it does: within a given industry a particular type of product (say a hotel room or a taxi or newspaper) builds into particular form over time do in large part to technological constraints. The Internet removes these technological constraints, turning what used to be a fundamental part of the production and distribution of that product into, in essence, a form of rent-seeking behaviour. And then finally a disruptor comes along with a solution that removes the rent-seeking and realigns the organisation of the industry with the core features of the product in its internet enabled form.

So, for example, taxi:

  • needed some kind of system to ensure minimum standards, discoverability, and reliability, hence the medallion system in so many places;
  • internet removes the medallion as the only way of ensuring this;
  • players come in with new ways of ensuring reliable for-hire-care services that also improve on discoverability.

Or music:

  • needed a platform for delivering individual copies of music (i.e. records, tapes, whatever);
  • this was naturally exclusionary, since you had to buy it to enjoy it unless you had sophisticated knowledge or systems;
  • producers charge for the medium, nominally, but collected for the content; this made their goods exclusionary, even though music itself is non-rivalrous;
  • when the internet completed the process of destroying the need for the medium that was started with the tape cassette, charging money for “a copy” of a song began to look like rent-seeking;
  • groups started coming along that exploited this by undercutting the old model.

In the case of Scholarly Communication, however, we seem to be stuck at the stage where previously necessarily exclusionary industries become rent-seeking, without the arrival of a rival organisation to undermine them:

  • We originally relied on journals and subscriptions and so on, because we needed to buy the paper articles were printed on (intrinsically exclusionary);
  • This led to the current organisation of both science and publishing which is optimised for that world;
  • The web removed the intrinsically exclusionary nature of publication, meaning charging subscriptions (and rewarding for exclusivity in publication) is really rent-seeking;
  • But we don’t yet have the alternative organisation better suited to this new product.

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