Wednesday, September 24, 2008


The Boston Globe writes about the open-science movement.

Openness has always been an integral part of science, with scientists presenting findings in journals or at conferences. But the open-science movement, with many of its leaders in the Boston area, encourages scientists to share techniques and even their work long before they are ready to present results, when they are devising research questions, running experiments, and analyzing data. In such open forums, the wisdom of the crowd could offer the ultimate form of peer review. And scientific information, they say, should be available without the hefty subscription fees charged by most journals.

It is an attempt to bring the kind of revolutionary and disruptive change to the laboratory that the Internet has already wrought on the music and print media industries. The idea is that opening up science could speed discoveries, increase collaboration, and transform the field in unforeseen ways.
It is kind of sad that scientific research isn't very well accessible on the internet right now, and that the scientific community hasn't embraced internet tools and techniques to make science go faster. But, there are a few examples of where this is occurring now.
For example, started out in 2005 as Endipedia, a website that scientists in Drew Endy and Tom Knight's labs at MIT used to share information. But today the website is backed by a National Science Foundation grant, and more than 4,000 biologists and bioengineers from across the world have signed up to share techniques, get practical tips, and even detail their day-to-day work if they choose.
The Economist mentions Research Blogging and Nature Network as two sites where scientists are blogging and discussing peer-reviewed science.

Besides just allowing for new ways of distributing scientific information, open-science allows for new ways for scientific research and analysis to be conducted. Bruce G. Charlton writes about amateur internet researchers who participate by publishing on blogs and posting their data online:
At the other extreme ‘quant bloggers’ are publishing real science with their personal identity shielded by pseudonyms and writing from internet addresses that give no indication of their location or professional affiliation. Yet the paradox is that while named high status scientists from famous institutions are operating with suspect integrity (e.g. covertly acting as figureheads) and minimal accountability (i.e. failing to respond to substantive criticism); pseudonymous bloggers – of mostly unknown identity, unknown education or training, and unknown address – are publishing interesting work and interacting with their critics on the internet. And at the same time as ‘official’ and professional science is increasingly timid careerist and dull; the self-organized, amateur realm of science blogs displays curiosity, scientific motivation, accountability, responsibility – and often considerable flair and skill. Quant bloggers and other internet scientists are, however, usually dependent on professional scientists to generate databases.
Beyond having articles available on the internet, open-science is also about making data available over the internet so other researchers can easily access it. Having this data easily available makes it possible for these amateur researchers to exist.

Journals currently hold the roll of determining what the best scientific research is, but this could be replaced by a scientific Digg site, where researchers could digg the research articles they find most interesting. Those with the most diggs would show up on the "front page" which would be equivalent to being published in the best journals. Instead of a selected few on the journal selection committee determining which are the best papers, the scientific community as a whole would get to decide. A scientific Digg site could also incorporate Digg's comment section, allowing scientists to give feedback on articles immediately and making the back and forth of researchers open to all.

Given the advantages to open-science, what is the holdup?
More broadly, the entire system of credit in science is based on being the first to publish a finding in a reputable journal; there's no incentive to post on blogs or community websites. Scientists try to get their findings published in the top journals in their fields, and major scientific prizes are awarded to those who make breakthroughs.
The way scientists are rewarded is going to need to change for open-science to take hold. But there is no reason for that not to happen. Rewards, such as tenure, should be based on who is making the biggest contribution to science, and there is no reason not to add blog posts and other online contributions into the calculation. You should get credit not just for publishing in journals but also for making information and data publicly available fast.

Another way to make the change is if those giving the grant money require researchers to share.
The Gates Foundation, for example, is now offering millions for malaria research, and it's contingent on the researchers making it available to share. Sharing maximizes the return on investment in early-stage research.
The open-science movement will make science more accessible, more integrated with the internet, allow new way for science to be conducted and speed up the rate of discovery. Hopefully the scientific community will embrace it quickly.

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