Saturday, 17 November, 2001

Oxford English Dictionary and Open Source Software

I finally finished reading The Professor and the Madman, by Simon Winchester.  The book's cover describes it as "A tale of murder, insanity, and the making of the Oxford English Dictionary."  It's an interesting story about how an obviously insane American Army officer ended up being perhaps the greatest single contributor to the OED.

Reading the book, I was struck by how much the making of the OED reminds me of open source software projects--both the good and the bad.  First, the good.  The project would never have been completed without the thousands of volunteers who read books, identified words that should be included in the dictionary, and supplied quotations to illustrate how the words were used.  This information was sent to the editors, who verified the information, wrote the words' definitions, and prepared the pages for typesetting.  The procedure reminded me much of open source projects that have dozens of  contributors (possibly more) who submit code that is integrated into the final product by the project's "owners."

Like many open source projects, the OED effort had some serious project management issues.  Originally conceived in the 1850's, the project went almost nowhere for the first 20 years.  People volunteered to help, but then decided it was too much work or would take too much time.  The original editor simply did not have the skills required to motivate and coordinate the work.  The new editor, James Murray (the "Professor" in the book), was able to get the project on track, but was woefully unable to estimate the time required to complete it.  In the end, although the final work was the product of thousands of paid and unpaid individuals, the bulk of the work was done by a select few--just like most open source projects.

No, the analogy isn't perfect.  Whereas the contributors to an open source project have free and open access to the final product, the OED's contributors were not entitled to a free copy of the completed dictionary.  Their motivation was very similar, though:  they saw a need for something important and volunteered their time and effort to see it completed.