When "contribution" isn't "code"

May 22, 2009 Jack Repenning

"Open source development" is vastly more about the openness of the development that the openness of the source. This can be confusing, and may be at the root of some of the classic first-encounter confusions.

A great exploration of the point has just surfaced in a totally non-code area: O'Reilly Media and authors are pioneering an "open source publishing" system. They're really excited about the results, and you might be surprised at how thoroughly their success parallels the successes of the best of open-source software.

Basically what they've done is to make early drafts of their books available on line, with an in-line comment system. As each draft goes out and draws comment, they incorporate the feedback into the book. The authors remain the authors: while I'm sure they'll find some way to acknowledge their over 700 reviewers, they're not changing the names on the cover. This work is most similar to the "Commercial Open Source" model discussed in my "Open core, open complement" post.

But whatever the structure, the open sourcing is a resounding success:

  • 7000 comments
  • 700 reviewers, where most technical books might have only 2 
  • comments from every relevant demographic, from highly experienced to neophyte 

Have these reviewers provided actual publishable content? Probably in some cases, but many also have contributed by comments as vague as "I have no idea what you're trying to say, here." They're all valuable; they all save the authors tremendous effort; they all make the result a better book.

Every open-source software project needs this kind of contribution: real and potential users guiding the way. How accessible a given project is to actual code contribution can vary widely, but your potential-commenter community is always just exactly as large as your potential-customer community. Get them involved!

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