LibrePlanet 2016, Software Curation and Preservation
This year’s LibrePlanet conference, organized by the Free Software Foundation, touched on a number of themes that relate to research on software curation and preservation taking place at MIT’s Program on Information Science.
The two day conference hosted at MIT aimed to “examine how free software creates the opportunity of a new path for its users, allows developers to fight the restrictions of a system dominated by proprietary software by creating free replacements, and is the foundation of a philosophy of freedom, sharing, and change.” In a similar way, at the MIT program on Information Science, we are investigating the ways in which sustainable software might positively impact academic communities and shape future scholarly research practices. This was a great opportunity to compare and contrast the concerns and goals of the Free Software movement with those who use software in research.
A number of recurring themes emerged over the course of the weekend that could inform research on software curation. The event kicked off with a conversation between Edward Snowden and Daniel Kahn Gillimor. They tackled privacy and security, and spoke at length about how current digital infrastructures limit our freedoms. Interestingly, they also touched on how to expand the Free Software community and raise awareness with non technical folks about the need to create, and use, Free Software. A lack of incentives for “newbies” inhibits the growth of the Free Software movement; Free Software needs to compete with proprietary software’s low entry levels and user experience. Similarly, the growth of sustainable, reusable, academic software through better documentation, storage, and visibility is inhibited by a lack of incentives for researchers and libraries to improve software development practices and create curation services.
The talks “Copyleft for the next decade: a comprehensive plan” by Bradley Kuhn and “Will there be a next great Copyright Act?” by Peter Higgins both examined the ways in which licensing and copyright are impacting the Free Software movement. The future seems somewhat bleak for GPL licensing and copyleft with developers being discouraged from using this license, and instead putting their work under more permissive licenses which then allow companies to use and profit from other’s software. In comparison, research gateways like NanoHub and HubZero encounter the same difficulties in encouraging researchers to make their software freely available to others to use and modify. As both speakers touched on, the general lack of understanding, and also fear, surrounding copyright needs to be remedied. Scihub was also mentioned as an example of a tool that, whilst breaking copyright law, is also revolutionary in nature in that no library has ever aggregated more scientific literature on one platform. How can we create technologies that make scholarly communication more open in the future? Will the curation of software contribute to these aims? Within wider discussions on open access, it is also worthwhile to think about how software can often be a research object in its own right that merits the same curation and concern as journal papers and datasets.
The ideas discussed in the session “Getting the academy to support free software and open science” had many parallels to the research being carried out here at the MIT Program on Information Science. The three speakers spoke about Free Software activities within their home institutions and the barriers that are created by the heavy use of proprietary software at universities. Not only does the continued use of this software result in high costs and the perpetuation of the “centralized web” that relies on companies like Google, Microsoft, and Apple, but this also encourages students to think passively about the technologies they use. Instead, how can we encourage students to think of software as something they can build on and modify through the use of Free Software? Can we develop more engaged academic communities who think and use software critically through the development of software curation services and sustainable software practices? This was a really interesting discussion that explored problematic infrastructures in higher education.
Finally, Alison Macrina and Nima Fatemi’s talk on the “Library Freedom Project: the long overdue partnership between libraries and free software” put the library front and centre in the role of engaging the wider community in Free Software and advocating for better privacy and more freedom. The Library Freedom Project not only educates librarians and patrons on internet privacy but has also rolled out Tor browsers in a few public libraries. What can academic libraries do to build on this important work and to increase awareness about online freedom within our communities?
The conference was a great way to gain insight into the wider activities of the software community and to talk with others from a multitude of different disciplines. It was interesting to think about how research on software curation services could be informed by these broader discussions on the future of Free Software. Academic librarians should also think about how they can advocate for Free Software in their institutions to encourage better understanding of privacy and to foster environments in which software is critically evaluated to meet user needs. Can libraries embrace the Free Software movement as they have the Open Access movement?