Sunday, September 06, 2015

Perhaps my least interesting publication ever

Just recently, I was listed as first author (out of five), on what is perhaps the least interesting scientific publication in my history as a researcher.  This includes even semi-embarassing old rants from when I was a young and arrogant graduate student---those at least give some sort of plausibly interesting perspective on what I was thinking about at the time.  Not to say this document isn't important: I think it was definitely worth the time and effort, and is useful.  That doesn't necessarily mean anybody will derive any particular joy or pleasure from encountering it.

So, what is this deadly dull publication that I've for some strange reason decided to advertise so loudly on the Internet?  Its formal name is: BBF RFC 107: Copyright and Licensing of BBF RFCs. This takes a little bit of explanation, so bear with me and please try not to fall asleep too quickly: one of ways that people in the synthetic biology community share their work is by posting open "Request For Comment" documents (RFCs)---essentially draft standards, following the main model used for developing the Internet.  These are cataloged by the BioBricks Foundation, hence BBF RFCs.  The first of these, BBF RFC 0 (yes, there were computer scientists involved, and we like to count starting with zero), sets out the process for how to submit a new RFC.  A few months ago, I noticed that the original handling of copyright had gotten out of date with respect to some current practices in accessing scientific documents online and current preferences for open standards development.  I raised these issues with the BBF RFC maintainers, and we figured out a legal "patch" for BBF RFC 0. The end result of all this is a 1.5 page document that makes two small changes in how new BBF RFC documents are handled:

  • The document is actually marked with a modern open copyright license, and
  • The authors share copyright with the BioBricks Foundation, rather than transferring it.

Now, unfortunately, the parts of BBF RFC 0 that we didn't replace weren't followed correctly in setting forth this RFC, which has caused some trouble with another BBF RFC that I'm involved in, but that story's even less interesting, and I'm sure it will all get sorted out eventually.

In case your eyes have well and truly glazed over, let me sum that all up more simply: I noticed a little thing about copyrighting certain scientific documents that needed tweaking.  By a quirk of process, doing so had the side effect of creating an archival scientific publication.

So, was it worth it?  Absolutely: it didn't take much time, and copyright is one of those things that it's often worth paying close attention to, because if you screw it up as a community, you can accidentally wind up poisoning all sorts of things down the line, if nasty people decide to try to take advantage of loopholes or cautious organizations get blocked from doing things by technicalities.  I'm just quite amused that this ends up in my list of publications as outwardly indistinguishable from BBF RFCs that took many people years of work and that gather lots of citations.  It's also kind of funny from a "what do scientists do all day" perspective.

But, for the love of all that you hold holy, don't read the document unless you actually need to.
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