Thursday, October 13, 2011

The State of Open Science

Admittedly, I’m hoping this post will be as informative for me as it is for the reader.

Adam and I started this organization because we were having a hard time identifying a cohesive movement illuminating the value of open science. Forward-thinking scholars had published wonderful commentary on problems associated with a closed science model, but there was no hub for open science! Who could I contact to volunteer my time and skill set to this cause?

Where we are:

Let’s give credit where it’s due: Michael Nielsen, scholar and major internet presence, has produced some of the most insightful commentary on this issue to date. We will defer to his opus, The Future of Science, for baseline commentary on the need for, and potential of, open science. It’s worth reading the comments section, as well, as it’s a treasure trove of commentary from other thought leaders in the field.

Sampling just a few lines from TFoS:

To create an open scientific culture that embraces new online tools, two challenging tasks must be achieved: (1) build superb online tools; and (2) cause the cultural changes necessary for those tools to be accepted. The necessity of accomplishing both these tasks is obvious, yet projects in online science often focus mostly on building tools, with cultural change an afterthought.

Nielsen concludes that, “to develop [superb online tools] requires a rare combination of strong design and technical skills, and a deep understanding of how science works,” and that culture change will come from two directions: a top-down and a bottom-up strategy. He notes that a successful top-down intervention, the 2008 NIH declaration that every NIH funded manuscript must be made open access. It is easy to see how top-down mandates like this will be necessary to inspire sustainable change. He concludes that bottom-up changes will require new ways of gauging the value of a scientist’s intellectual contributions if tools like blogging are eventually used to disseminate knowledge.

That Nielsen does not elaborate on bottom-up strategies is unfortunate; we learn so much from the rest of his piece! As thorough as the rest is, we surmise that this oversight is due the enormous challenge of creating an exhaustive list of necessary interventions to make open science a reality. Ultimately, OSK believes that bottom-up changes will require much more than validating a researcher’s contribution among his peers and superiors.

Validation isn’t enough; open science must be convenient, making not working within open science media an absurdly wasteful proposition. It should be self-reinforcing, offering bigger opportunities as prestige within the new media grows; it must inspire allegiance. Visibility should be a priority; a researcher cannot use this media if he believes closed science media are the only way! The emerging standards for collaboration and publishing must strike the individual researcher as progressive and obvious. He/she must be able to justify using these media to himself/herself, philosophically. A bottom-up approach will require institutional changes precipitated by the demands of individual researchers.

Perhaps most importantly, open science should be ready for a young scientist at the genesis of his/her career. Ultimately, the moment ambitious secondary schoolers/undergraduates/graduate students/professional students begin thinking about research, they are immersed in a paradigm by their peers/superiors. The current paradigm includes data ownership, journal-based publishing, journal-oriented citations, anonymous peer review, the English language, publishing-volume based promotions, and impact-factor based personal “success”. Discussions of alternatives to this paradigm are few with far between, usually happen among progressive zealots, and are almost entirely grounded in the merits of projects like PLoS ONE and open access journals. Unfortunately, most discussion of open science happen among brilliant folks who are probably humble enough to not realize they’re in the top-down bracket of the movement!

This momentum promises to be the biggest challenge for open science (though technical challenges are many, as well); a functional paradigm with problems is invariably more inviting than the uncertainty of a revolution. There is currently little incentive for change, but there is truly no impetus among the researching majority.

OSK will take on these momentum challenges.

We think open science should keep a better record of its allies at every level of academia, industry, and government; we are ultimately a team! Open science must find ways to coexist initially with closed science, to become a necessary supplement to closed science, to continually improve and eventually supersede closed science in its scope. It must become part of the scientist’s consciousness, challenging him/her intellectually from secondary school to tenure. Undergraduates should discuss the merits and shortcomings of open science in class. Eventually, the press will see the merits of dialoguing the limitations of closed science.

Visibility is paramount.


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