Paul Stacey

A Systems Approach to Open

In the 1990’s I worked for Hughes Aircraft of Canada developing large scale air traffic control systems for international customers around the world. Air traffic control systems are large, complex, mission critical systems. After extensive requirements gathering and analysis an overall architecture for the air traffic control system was defined including complete hardware and software requirements. Development of something so large required the overall architecture to be broken down into subsystem components which were then distributed to different teams for development. The lead systems engineering team had the responsibility of integrating developed subsystems into the final air traffic control system and ensuring that the overall architecture design and requirements were met.

This kind of approach is called systems engineering. The key characteristics of systems engineering are that it:

  • gathers, analyses and shapes customer requirements into an overall system
  • takes a holistic view that breaks the overall system down into components and integrates developed components together into a whole
  • uses and coordinates an interdisciplinary set of expertise and teams
  • focuses on not just the initial development of the system but its life cycle and iterative improvement over time
  • combines technical and human-centred practices and work processes

The early days of open licensing and open resources were primarily shaped by innovators and early adopters using Creative Commons licenses and creating open resources as independent individuals. What I see now is open moving from an individual activity to a large scale system wide activity similar to systems engineering. As open matures a more holistic approach is being adopted involving many people working together.

Increasingly I see a systems approach to open as being the most strategic and impactful. A systems approach takes a multi-stakeholder perspective, strategically considering all the stakeholders in a value chain and how they can work together to achieve a common goal. This shifts the focus from individual adoption of open practices to system-wide adoption. A system working together can achieve greater impact than an individual.

Let me give a couple of examples.

The BCcampus Open Textbook Summit held in Vancouver 16-17-Apr-2014 brought together a wide range of organizations and people who are all collectively working on adopting, adapting, and authoring open textbooks for students. An open textbook is a textbook licensed under an open copyright license (such as Creative Commons), and made available online to be freely used by students, teachers, and members of the public. While online versions of open textbooks are available for free if students want hard copy they can print out their own or order a low-cost print version.

Open Textbook Summit logo

The open licensing of a textbook makes it possible for others to add to, adapt, translate, localize, and otherwise improve it. Everyone has 5R rights to:

Retain: Make, own, and control their own copy of the textbook
Reuse: Use the open textbook in its unaltered form
Revise: Adapt, adjust, modify, improve, or alter the book
Remix: Combine the book with other openly licensed content to create something new
Redistribute: Share copies of the original textbook, revisions, or remixes with others

The BCcampus Open Textbook Summit featured speakers representing a wide interdisciplinary group of expertise including government & institution senior administrators, faculty, students (and here), librarians, authors, publishers, and technologists. This wide representation of multiple stakeholders who all play a role in creating open textbooks is a great example of a systemic approach. Each stakeholder’s involvement in creating and using open textbooks is important but it is the cumulative effect of multiple stakeholders working together that creates the greatest impact.

More about the BCcampus Open Textbook initiative can be found here.
If you want to see examples of open textbooks start here.

One of the great things about the BCcampus Open Textbook Summit was that it brought together not only multiple stakeholders but multiple regional open textbook initiatives. Representatives of open textbook initiatives in California, Oregon, Washington and beyond were all in attendance. This enables sharing and comparing of approaches and lessons learned not just from different stakeholders but from different regional system wide initiatives. Its fascinating, and informative, to hear about the BC open textbook initiative and compare it to the one in California, or Washington, or Oregon.

Inevitably the adoption of open practices requires stakeholders to change current modes of operation, sometimes dramatically so. Change of this magnitude can be disruptive and may threaten traditional roles and responsibilities, business models, and financial structures. A natural reaction to such change is fear, risk aversion, and preference for the status quo.

To generate movement and acceptance I’ve found it important to keep the focus on the shared goal, cause, or issue that open solves. In the case of open textbooks the shared goal is making education more accessible and affordable for students. Having a shared goal as the primary focus make business models, roles, modes of operation and the like secondary to the main goal. When the impetus and value associated with achieving the main goal are big enough, change happens, the system and stakeholders adapt, new models and modes of operation emerge. Adoption of open practices is best enabled when the value proposition of doing so is high.

Open textbooks are one great example of a systems approach to open.

Another example emerged for me in the context of leading an open models working group for the World Bank’s Global Food Safety Partnership (GFSP). Our task was to generate a range of open models that enhance the scalability and sustainability of food safety. Our primary goal was to show how open practices can support GFSP’s efforts to help ensure safe food, increase food supply chain value, accelerate economic growth, alleviate rural poverty, and improve public health outcomes. This is the big picture goal the GFSP seeks to attain.

Can adoption of open practices help the GFSP achieve this goal? If so, how?

The Global Food Safety Partnership is a public/private partnership representing many different stakeholders including:

  • governments
  • funders
  • regulatory agencies – public regulators, inspectors and managers
  • private sector agri-food processors and manufacturers
  • farmers and producers
  • universities, service providers, trainers and certification bodies
  • international organizations
  • non-governmental organizations (NGOs)

This suggests that a systems approach to open is required. It won’t be enough for one stakeholder to adopt open practices. The goals of GFSP are too large for that to be impactful. Achieving the big goals of GFSP requires multi-stakeholder coordinated participation.

One of the significant benefits of open practices is that they open up the opportunity for new stakeholders to get involved and participate. Food storage and cooking at home, the poor, the farmer, the food market seller, the street vendor, these uses and stakeholders are not well represented at the GFSP table. Adoption of open practices opens up the opportunity for them to be involved. If GFSP has a goal of alleviating rural poverty it is essential that they be engaged as active participants.

A systems approach to open offers opportunities for information sharing, public participation, and collaboration. Multi-stakeholder adoption of open practices generates cumulative benefits for all stakeholders. In a systems approach to open the more stakeholders participating the greater the impact.

Applying a systems approach to open for GFSP considers the role of each stakeholder and what open practices they could adopt that would contribute to the big picture goal GFSP is seeking to realize. Its not a one size fits all approach. Different stakeholders adopt different open practices. Government and funders might adopt open policy that require deliverables produced through the funds they provide to be openly licensed. Providers involved in generating food safety training and learning resources can publish their content as Open Educational Resources. There are many forms of open and a myriad of open practices can be brought to bear on a shared goal.

For the GFSP we defined nine different open practices stakeholders could adopt:

  1. open content (including Open Educational Resources and Open Courseware)
  2. open data
  3. open access (research)
  4. open government
  5. open source software
  6. open standards
  7. open policy
  8. open licensing
  9. open hardware

GFSP Open Model Big Picture

For each type of open practice we provided GFSP relevant examples. Here’s a sampling:

  1. open content – see Digital Green and Food Safety Knowledge Network
  2. open data – the US web site releases government open data.In 2012, a national annual competition was created as part of the Health Data Initiative to stimulate the innovative use of health data in apps and products. The “Health DataPalooza” is now a sold out event attended by over 2,000 health providers, technology developers, venture capitalists, entrepreneurs and community advocates and has resulted in the launch of new products and companies. OpenFDA, providing easy access to public data of the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and highlighting projects using these data, will be implemented in September of 2014.
  3. open access (research) – There are a number of open access journals and online publications that provide free and open access to scholarly articles specific to food safety, foodborne illness, manufacturing and processing practices, etc. In 2007 the US National Institutes of Health enacted an open access policy requiring the researchers they fund to make their final, peer‐reviewed manuscripts publicly available no later than 12 months after official date of publication. The number of open access journals is rapidly increasing – the Directory of Open Access Journals lists over 9,000. The Public Library of Science (PLOS) and BioMed Central are two popular examples relevant to food safety.
  4. open hardware – See Open Source Ecology and Farm Hack for examples relevant to food production and food safety. Photosynq is an open research project whose goal is to create a low cost, hand-held measurement device which researchers, educators and citizen scientists can use to build a global database of plant health. A low cost mobile prototype has been developed to replace the large, expensive and stationary equipment that was previously required to measure photosynthesis.

One of the challenges in open work is helping people understand the myriad forms of open and how they work. Defining open practices, along with associated value propositions and examples goes a long way to establishing a common lexicon and a tool box of methods that can be strategically deployed.

All that and more is captured in the GFSP Open Models Concept paper. Feel free to read the whole thing if this interests you. I also want to express deep appreciation and thanks to Theresa Bernardo and Garin Fons who co-wrote this paper with me and to Chris Geith and the World Bank for the opportunity.

Writing the GFSP Open Models paper led me to have a heightened interest in the use of open practices for food related issues. My colleague Puneet Kishor at Creative Commons shared with me another great example – the Open Source Seed Initiative. Linux for Lettuce and The Carrot Hack provide thoughtful coverage of this important development.

Open Source Seed Initiative web site

I also recently finished reading Jeremy Rifkin’s book The Zero Marginal Cost Society (highly recommend) which contains a few other fascinating examples including Shared Earth connecting land owners with gardeners and farmers, and HerbShare which is fundraising to develop online, searchable community maps of fresh herbs available for sharing.

Open Source Seed Initiative web site

A systems approach to open combines a wide range of open practices across multiple stakeholders and applies them to a shared common goal. It’s exciting work that not only accomplishes short term goals but sets in place a process that can scale, iterate, and sustain over the long term.

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Open Access

RIP copy



January 11, 2013 Aaron Swartz committs suicide.
The year 2013 starts on a somber note, an open wound.

I never met Aaron but I found it interesting to learn he was involved with the launch of Creative Commons.
Those who come before you leave a legacy.

So Open It Hurts provides a sense of Aaron’s personality and significant events in his life. This video of Aaron describing his personal involvement in the defeat of SOPA adds his presence, humour, and sense of intelligent innocence.

Aaron was a strong advocate for open access. His troubling and sad death has led to a rise in public awareness of open access. As part of Open Education Week 2013, and in the spirit of Heather Joseph’s Honoring an “Open” Activist by Taking Action, I thought I’d take responsibility to cast forward knowledge of open access, in my own way, through this post.


So what is this open access all about?

Open Access is the principle that research should be accessible online, for free, immediately after publication.

The Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC), an international alliance of academic and research libraries, has some great papers, guides and resources on open access. Their Open Access paper notes:

In the age of print, open access was physically and economically impossible. But thanks to the Internet, it’s an emerging reality. Now, the tradition of producing journal articles without expectation of payment combined with electronic publishing offers an unprecedented public good: the free online availability of peer-reviewed scientific and scholarly journal articles.


You may not have realized that research isn’t openly accessible.
What, you’re saying, you mean publicly funded research isn’t openly accessible?
That’s right, it isn’t.

Farhood Manjoo in his Slate post How MIT Can Honor Aaron Swartz describes the current situation like this:

The world’s colleges now collectively spend at least $10 billion and probably more than $20 billion every year on subscriptions to academic journals and archives like JSTOR. Even worse, those costs are rising at an astronomical rate—by one calculation, the amount that a typical college library spends on annual journal subscriptions rose by more than 300 percent between 1986 and 2005, much faster than inflation, tuition, and most university budgets. (Note that this was during a period when many journals went electronic—a time when you’d expect their costs and, thus, their prices to go down, not up.) These prices keep rising because the market for journals is inelastic—since there’s no substitute for any specific journal, whatever price it charges, universities feel like they’ve got to keep paying. This is all explained very well in a paper called “The High Cost of Scholarly Journals (And What To Do About It),” which I’d recommend you read if it weren’t behind a pay wall.

The amount universities spend on journals is especially perverse when you consider that most of the research in those journals was produced by scholars affiliated with and supported by universities, government agencies, and philanthropic endowments, all of whom have an interest in spreading scholarship far and wide. When you stop to think about it, the whole process looks Rube Goldbergian: People who work for universities and are funded by the public are giving their work away to journals for free—and then the journals are charging universities to buy it back. They’re making enormous profits from the scheme, too. For instance Elsevier, one of the leading publishers of scientific journals, routinely reports profit margins of around 37 percent.

Michael Eisen in his post How academia betrayed and continues to betray Aaron Swartz further elaborates:

Although most academic research is funded by the public, universities all but force their scholars to publish their results in journals that take ownership of the work and place it behind expensive pay walls.

Centuries ago, when printing and mailing paper journals was the most efficient way to disseminate new knowledge, a symbiotic relationship developed between scholars, who had ideas they wanted to share, and publishers, who had printing presses and the means to convey printed works to a wide audience. Transferring copyright to publishers, which protected their ability to recover costs and profit from their investment, was a reasonable price for authors to pay to further their disseminating mission.

But with the birth of the internet, scholars no longer needed publishers to distribute their work. As NYU’s Clay Shirky has noted, publishing went from being an industry to being a button.

Had the leaders of major research universities reacted to this technological transformation with any kind vision, Swartz’s dream of universal free access to the scholarly literature would now be a reality. But they did not. Rather than seize this opportunity to greatly facilitate research and education, both within and outside the academy, they chose instead to reify the status quo.

Instead of encouraging their faculty to make their work widely available, virtually all universities send the unmistakable message to current and aspiring faculty that success in their career depends on publishing in the most high profile place you can. Since the most prestigious journals are generally old, this edict has the effect of stifling innovation in scientific communication. While countless alternatives to the traditional model have arisen, academics in most fields are reluctant to embrace them, fearing that doing so would harm their career prospects.

It is hard to account for this abdication on a university’s basic mission to produce and disseminate knowledge as anything but institutional laziness, as universities essentially farm out responsibility for screening job and promotion candidates to journals.

Absurdly, as soon as the scholarly output of our universities is in the hands of publishers, they immediately buy it back, spending billions of scarce institutional dollars every year in subscription and licensing fees to provide access to students and faculty, but leaving everybody else out in the cold.

Posting our PDFs is all fine and good, but the real way to honor Aaron Swartz is to combat this pervasive institutional fecklessness and do everything in our power to make sure no papers ever end up behind pay walls again. We have to demand that our universities alter their policies to reward, rather than punish, free scholarly publishing, and that they stop cutting the checks that keep this immoral system afloat.

Above all else we need to enshrine the principle that the knowledge produced in the academy is a public good whose value is greatly diminished by turning it into private property.

So eloquently put.
And yet so shocking, almost shameful.
You mean research funded by the public, isn’t available to the public?
You mean universities don’t embody the principles of open access?
Yes, I’m afraid so, that is what this means.

But that’s wrong, you say.
Well some go so far as to say it’s immoral!


In a digital age open access is completely feasible.
Efforts to realize open access are underway.
Lets explore whats involved in going open access and progress toward that end.

Peter Suber’s Open Access Overview gives a really good summary of the ways and means of Open Access.
But let me start with practicalities.

How does one openly publish research?

Currently there are two main means of going Open Access.

1. Green Open Access (Self Archiving)
Green open access means self-archiving. Authors archive pre-prints (draft, uncorrected versions) and/or post-prints (the final version as it will be published) in repositories. Open Access repositories are institutionally based (OpenDOAR and ROAR are directories of institutional open access repositories), or connected to specific disciplines, such as arxiv for Physics or RePEc for Economics. When institutions host Open Access repositories, they take steps to ensure long-term preservation. Repositories can be searched with tools such as Google Scholar, and OAIster. Green Open Access involves authors publishing their work in any journal and then self-archiving a version of the article for free public use.



2. Gold Open Access (Open Access Publishing/Journals)
Gold open access refers to open access publishing, particularly in journals. Open access journals, usually electronic journals are available to readers free of charge and openly accessible on the Internet. These journals aren’t behind a pay wall and don’t charge a subscription fee. Instead they employ different methods of paying for the publishing including sponsorship, grants, advertising, and submission fees charging the author-institution for refereeing/publishing outgoing articles instead of charging the user-institution. Two well-known open access publishers include BioMed Central (BMC) and Public Library of Science (PLoS) but there are many more. There are thousands of peer-reviewed journals listed in the Directory of Open Access Journals.




Scientists and scholars are not directly paid for their journal articles. They write journal articles to advance knowledge in their fields and their careers.

Journal publishers have historically required scholars to transfer copyright to the publisher before they will publish their work. Standard practice is for authors to sign a restrictive publication agreement, often called ‘copyright transfer agreement’, that essentially transfers copyright from the author to the publisher. Through this transfer authors give up rights and must ask permission from the publisher green open access their work. However, publishers only need permission to publish an article, they do not need to control the copyright as well.

SPARC has developed the SPARC Author Addendum, which is a “legal instrument that modifies the publisher’s agreement and allows you to keep key rights to your articles.” Scholars are encouraged to retain copyright through use of this addendum so they can post it in an green open access online repository.

Interestingly, most publishers (60+% according to Suber) already permit green open access. However many authors fail to take advantage of the opportunity. Funders and institutions who are in a position to put in place policy that ensures open access for 100% of published work by grantees and faculty have not stepped up to do so.

It’s puzzling why academics, institutions and funders don’t take action around open access. For scholars dissemination and citation of research work generates metrics on which their personal reputation and merit are based. Open access generates more readers, more recognition and more research impact. Astronomy researchers who made their Astrophysical Journal articles open access doubled the citation rate of their articles. Scientists who chose the open access option when they published in Limnology and Oceanography had approximately three times more downloads. (see SPARC’s Open Access paper for references). The most highly cited articles are open access. Open access increases the impact of research work, shortens the delay between acceptance and publication, and makes articles easy to find and use. Open access research work is visible to search engines and retrieval tools.

And its not just citations from other researchers that matter. Open Access makes research work available to anyone. Students who read and rely on scholarly publications are not locked out of accessing work their library doesn’t subscribe to. Faculty who assign literature readings as part of course packs can choose the best research articles available. Open access promotes sharing knowledge for the public good. Those who rely on research for innovation and economic development can advance faster.

The booklet Greater Reach for Your Research points out that;

“Research is more valuable when it’s shared. Sharing enables new research to build on earlier findings. It not only fuels the further advancement of knowledge, it brings scientists and scholars the recognition that advances their careers. In the digital world, the ways we share and use scholarly material are expanding – rapidly, fundamentally, irreversibly.

Exact measures of how much of the worlds research is currently available through open access are difficult but studies show approximately 20% of research is available through green open access and 2-17% available through gold open access. (References here, here, here, and here.) Despite the obvious benefits only a small percentage of research is available through open access.

But things are changing and going open access is picking up speed.
Open Access by the Numbers provides a great synopsis of progress, growth, and current status.

Landmark steps toward change go back a few years. In 2007 the US National Institutes of Health enacted a Public Access Policy that says:

“all investigators funded by the NIH submit or have submitted for them to the National Library of Medicine’s PubMed Central an electronic version of their final, peer‐reviewed manuscripts upon acceptance for publication, to be made publicly available no later than 12 months after official date of publication”


The NIH policy goes on to describe what is at stake with this policy listing:

  • Opening up to the public 90,000 new scientific articles each year reporting research that U.S. taxpayers have funded through NIH’s annual 32 billion dollar investment in biomedical research.
  • Putting current, quality research in the hands of scientists in industry and academia to accelerate the pace of discovery.
  • Creating a central repository of biomedical information that serves multiple audiences from researchers to students, from doctors to entrepreneurs.
  • Fostering progress towards the common goal of combating disease and improving health.

In 2008 the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) followed suit with their Open Access Policy. Canada’s Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) have also taken steps in support of open access and collectively the three principal funders of research and scholarship have established guiding principles around public access to research results.


In the UK the 2012 Finch Report recommends publicly funded scientific research be made available online for anyone to read by 2014. See “Free access to British scientific research within two years“.


The US has a web site called We the People which provides an online way to petition the government to take action on a range of important issues facing the country. If a petition gets enough support, White House staff review it, ensure it’s sent to the appropriate policy experts, and issue an official response. In 2012 a petition to require free access over the Internet to scientific journal articles arising from taxpayer-funded research was created and rapidly generated over 65,000 signatures.


In February 2013 the government responded with a directive to Federal agencies that requires those with more than $100 million in research and development expenditures to develop plans to make the results of federally-funded research publicly available free of charge within 12 months after original publication.

At the same time a Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act (FASTR) is before Congress and making its way through the House and Senate. As SPARC explains in its SPARC Applauds White House for Landmark Directive Opening Up Access to Scientific Research press release “The Directive is a major achievement for both open access and open government. We should now take the next step and make open access the law of the land.”

As Peter Suber points out in his Second shoe drops: new White House Directive mandates OA the two approaches complement each other.

The early days of open access have focused on science but other academic domains are following suit.
Project Aims to Bring PLoS-Style Openness to the Humanities
The Open Library of Humanities, (launched in Feb-2013) and
Mathematicians aim to take publishers out of publishing.

Open access is clearly transforming the publishing and public access of research. Two aspects of open access that continue to be refined are the need for, and duration of, an embargo period and the open licensing of research to permit reuse. Science publishing: Open access must enable open use makes the case for reuse.

Creative Commons licenses have emerged as the standard for licensing research articles. This chart from the Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association shows growth in use of Creative Commons CC-BY license


Aaron Swartz’s suicide generated much sorrow leading many to question the status quo.

Was Aaron Swartz right? Aaron Swartz Was Right.

Has the scientific journal industry been disrupted? After Aaron, Reputation Metrics Startups Aim To Disrupt The Scientific Journal Industry.

Will MIT honor Aaron and other open activists? How MIT Can Honor Aaron Swartz.

Will others take action like Nina Paley? Ahimsa: Sita Sings the Blues now CC-0 “Public Domain”.

For me Aaron Swartz’s suicide led to introspection and this exploration of open access. Writing this post has been a kind of eulogy and a revelation. Higher education has often been defined as having three distinct functions – research, teaching, and community service. As I see things now open access is central to research, open educational resources to teaching, and the overall principles of open the basis of community service.