Which is more important: Open source or open standards?

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I have been an advocate of open source software most of my working life. The benefits are well known, namely:

  • Generally free as in “free beer”
  • Community owned
  • More secure because the source is open for all to see – little danger of backdoor access in compiled version
  • Fast evolution with many people contributing to the code
  • Less danger of lock-in by a software vendor
  • Software will never disappear
  • Code can be modified to add functionality

But unfortunately even having the code open and free depends on skilled programmers with enough financial support or conviction to support and extend the code. A worrying recent story in the news is the imminent demise of OpenOffice, a free, open software that by all account has been used by 10s of millions of users. There are now only 5–6 main programmers working on the software.

Let’s look at the software being used in the publishing industry. Most of it is proprietary of course, but there are notable exceptions, e.g. OJS from Public Knowledge Project, the newly released Continuum from eLife, and projects being worked on by the Coko Foundation.

Open software is great, but even more important (especially for the publishing industry) is open standards. Using agreed open standards for content and metadata is the best way of guaranteeing that publishers are not “locked in” to any software, be it open or proprietary.

The standard for saving content in scholarly publishing, especially for journals, is JATS. Almost all journals are using it, but unfortunately each publisher uses it in a different way. Even within the same publisher, each supplier often delivers their own “flavour” of JATS. The Jats4Reuse initiative that I am involved with aims to suggest best practice for using JATS, and publishers should get involved, if only to get an idea of what best practices are.

There are other areas where standardization is needed, e.g. in peer review software. From what I hear, moving from one peer review platform to another is usually a big headache as there is no standard for transferring content and metadata.

To conclude, in publishing, open software is commendable and a great service to the community, but open standards are even more important.

2 comments on “Which is more important: Open source or open standards?

  1. I find myself agreeing with you Kaveh!

    Open data standards enable a level playing field resulting in innovation and creative competition.

    Open source software is just another lock-in to software that happens to be “free”*, that may or may not be viable or innovative at a point in time.

    The enthusiasm for “open source” ahead of “open standards” in our industry puts the cart before the horse.


    * rarely actually free when all the real costs are recognized

  2. books in ancient times was papyrus