Open science

It’s tricky, as I discovered. There are as many meanings as there are people.

Mozilla Festival Open Science

I’ve been at the first day of Mozfest 2013. Mozfest was big, varied and fun! Coders, hackers, programmers, makers, shakers, the lot. They were all there.

I was centred on the second floor where all the science action was taking place. People from all over the world had convened on the second floor to talk science and the web.

The focus was open science: science that is available to all of society. Not just the results, but the method, data and all steps in between. I wanted to explore this idea in this post, so readers, please bear with my ramblings: they are definitely not fully developed. This was just a space for me to put my thoughts onto virtual paper.

The first thing to focus on is what these words actually mean to me. Looking at open, I think of the inviting, “come on in” sort of things that I experienced at the Future of Nature conference in April, where scientists from one field (synthetic biology) were inviting the conservation biologists to come and join them. They wanted to form a collaboration so that they could work together to reach a common goal.

Another connotation of open is free. Free for all to see what is inside. This can be good or bad, depending on who you allow to have a look.

In this post I muse on the combination of “open” with “science”, and whether or not these two words work together to create a common goal.

Brian Glanz from the Open Science Federation described open science to me as

Science by anybody, for everybody.

I guess that science has this element to it anyway: no one does science on their own. Science as a process is a collaborative thing. Working together in labs, sharing equipment and materials. Scientists also come together outside the labs (in pubs so I’ve heard) to discuss theories and ideas and see if their friends/colleagues think they have anything to go on.

This is something we talked about a lot during the sci-comm MSc – that there is so much to science that the public do not see. The public read the journalists’ interpretation of the science and the results. These are taken from interviews with the scientists and from the published papers.

BUT, the press miss more than half the story! There has to be more than just the method and results that the scientists showcase. Admittedly, I never did the research for a PhD or a post doc, but I spent a lot of time around scientists, and this methodical, painstakingly accurate method they portray in the papers is not quite how it goes.

The Internet has expanded and exploded over the last few decades to enhance the way science is shared. It has decreased the distance between people the world over by making communication so much more available and instant. These days, you could hear about a scientific Eureka Moment over Twitter before it is published in a journal. Scientists now blog about their research in a great amount of detail, giving readers a really good insight into their work. Online Open Access journals have broken down the walls and now let anyone read a scientific paper.

This instant sharing has closed the gap between scientists and non-scientists; it has broken down the walls of the ivory towers.

An increasing number of projects are embracing the ideals of open science and transparency. The Synaptic Leap is a biosciences project that aims to create an online, open, collaborative research network that brings scientists from the world together in one virtual space. They share their work, results, notes, comments, and ideas in order to find a better solution to the problems they are working on. Open Notebook is another way forward: this is where, instead of writing your science log book on paper, you take to the keyboard and write your notes online for everyone to see. This way you are sharing not only the results of your work, but your notes, thinking and ideas. Blogging about your work is another way: Jon Tennant writes a very successful blog about his research in palaeontology at Imperial College.

One big part of open science is Citizen Science. Citizen Science is where people set up a project that uses the scientific method to research the question, but opens it up to anyone to take part. Although keeping track of everyone might be tricky, it is one way that science is definitely becoming more “open”. Researchers like Caren Cooper use citizen science to do all of their research, and find it incredibly beneficial. Caren is an ornithologist who studies the migration and egg laying patterns of birds. Citizen science has allowed her to gather data from locations she would never be able to reach herself, nor would she ever be able to create the volume of data she gets from her citizen collaborators. She also turns to them for advice in directing her research.

In these ways I can see that open science can be beneficial, and I understand, and empathise with these goals, but I sometimes wonder whether it will take off. Scientists, like any one else, are people. And people are motivated by a few things that can become disincentives to the goal of open science:

  • Money
  • Reputation
  • Resources

These things drive every one on the planet. If it is a survival instinct for businesses, then it is a survival instinct for scientists. If a scientist does not get any money, they cannot do any research. If they haven’t done any research, they can’t earn a reputation in their field. And without either of these they may not get a position where they will have the resources to do their science.

If scientists start sharing everything and make their data available to everyone, how do they know someone won’t run away with their ideas, publish first, get the credit (and the money and the reputation and the resources for future projects etc etc…)?

Another thing that I thought about today was that open science must be so very different for different scientific disciplines. Take biology for instance. More and more, human biology is getting closer to learning so many personal details about us: our genetic make-up, or our microbiome for example. Combine this with data mining on the Internet: it’s terrifying when you realise just how much of your movements on the internet are being watched. Privacy becomes a real issue here. Compare this to physics, where personal details and health are not a concern to the research.

So is there a way to make Open Science work? Is there a way to make it happen so that collaboration is the centre of it all?

Greg Wilson from The Mozilla Foundation looked at how things have been shifting from a “crank concern by people on the fringe to an “of course you do” in science” to see how to help this become the norm.

I would like to see this happen. I would like to see access to scientific methods become more transparent. I would like to see the public engaging with science on a more personal level. I would like to see the doors to science opened. Whether it will happen remains to be seen.

These have been a few of my musings on Open Science. Reader, what is your view on Open Science?

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