I just read this lovely discussion of how a more open scientific culture (think open-access science) could improve the collective memory of science. This was on the Back Page of APS News (subscribers only) and here is the author Michael Nielsen’s blog post about the topic too, with some additional information. His basic premise is that we don’t exchange scientific information freely, in a sort of public scientific marketplace, because there’s a lack of trust like there is in the consumer marketplace. He writes:

In science, we’re so used to this situation that we take it for granted. But let’s compare to the apparently very different problem of buying shoes. Alice walks into a shoestore, with some money. Alice wants shoes more than she wants to keep her money, but Bob the shoestore owner wants the money more than he wants the shoes. As a result, Bob hands over the shoes, Alice hands over the money, and everyone walks away happier after just ten minutes. This rapid transaction takes place because there is a trust infrastructure of laws and enforcement in place that ensures that if either party cheats, they are likely to be caught and punished.

If shoestores operated like scientists trading ideas, first Alice and Bob would need to get to know one another, maybe go for a few beers in a nearby bar. Only then would Alice finally say “you know, I’m looking for some shoes”. After a pause, and a few more beers, Bob would say “You know what, I just happen to have some shoes I’m looking to sell”. Every working scientist recognizes this dance; I know scientists who worry less about selling their house than they do about exchanging scientific information.

I just loved this analogy. It’s absurd, yet understandable, how hard it is for scientists to collaborate. But there’s a ton of stuff being written now about open access and what it can do for science, on my blog and others.