Karim Lakhani on Open Source Science

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Interview from HBS Working Knowledge at http://hbswk.hbs.edu/item/5544.html


Broadcasting or introducing problems to outsiders yields effective solutions. Indeed, it was outsiders—those with expertise at the periphery of a problem's field—who were most likely to find answers and do so quickly.

The study and its findings are described in his paper "The Value of Openness in Scientific Problem Solving," coauthored with Lars Bo Jeppesen, Peter A. Lohse, and Jill A. Panetta. It describes how broadcast search was used with 166 distinct scientific problems from the research laboratories of twenty-six firms from ten countries over a four-and-a-half year period. Problems involved everything from biotech to consumer products and agrochemicals.

Thanks to broadcasting, nearly one-third of the previously unsolved problems found successful solutions.

"Innovations happen at the intersection of disciplines. People have talked about that a lot and I think we're providing some systematic evidence now with this study," Lakhani says."


Q: What is different about problem solving in the open source and science communities?

A: Open source software developers are very pragmatic and focused on solving problems. Scientists are focused on problems too, but their priority is often publication and that can sometimes come in the way of openness and sharing. The ideals of science are, of course, openness, sharing, and no restrictions on the free flow of knowledge, but in practice that doesn't happen much at all. Some scientists, however, are pushing back and many say they need to rethink how they conduct science.

Q: What are the risks of opening problems to outsiders?

A: For firms, the first order risk is the loss of intellectual property, especially if you think about the fact that most firms and scientists believe that the problems they work on are actually their most important things. If you provide hints to competitors, it will reveal a lot of your strategy.

I think it's a legitimate concern, although practice doesn't prove that out in the sense that even if other people know about the problems you're working on or have seen your solutions, it's very hard to implement those solutions in other settings. Knowledge is actually very sticky. Even if you reveal everything about what's going on, there's tacit knowledge behind a lot of scientific and technological activities.

And the benefit of opening up your problems to outsiders is that in fact you can get novel solutions—quicker solutions than what the firm or R&D lab might develop. It also opens up new domains for the pursuit of knowledge and activities.

But it's still a very counterintuitive way of working.

Q: I found it amazing in your research that outsiders were most likely to find a solution.

A: Yes. The problem may reside in one domain of expertise and the solution may reside in another. I've done interviews with scientists who participated by posting problems for broadcast, and most of these scientists were highly skeptical about this method because they considered themselves to be at the top of their discipline. However, they had never thought about the possibility of scientists in other disciplines looking at their problem, reconceptualizing it, and coming up with a solution that could be off-the-shelf. So when they actually see solutions from this type of method, they're blown away."


"Karim Lakhani is an assistant professor in the Technology and Operations Management unit at Harvard Business School."