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Open Science – Making It Work

October 4, 2011

Mun Keat, who runs the blog over at the Wellcome Trust amongst other things, has a really interesting write up on the issue of Open Science from the recent Science Online London event (also posted here):

In the conference’s opening keynote, physicist Michael Nielsen spoke about ‘open science’ – conducting research in a manner that makes ideas, data and thoughts available for others to look at and build on as you go along, rather than in hording them until publication (see also, as @alicebell pointed out, this blog post by Jack Stilgoe). The trouble is, open science is failing.

Nielsen says there needs to be a reward for sharing knowledge – it requires a change in the culture and reward system. He highlighted the efforts of Tobias Osborne, who’s tried to encourage open data sharing in the quantum physics community through an open lab book of sorts. But his efforts have revealed that few in the community give back. Nielsen referred to the ‘changing to the other side of the road’ metaphor – people are reluctant to change ingrained societal behaviour. But a change in regulation may well benefit the whole industry.

He asked about the concept of ‘the provision of ‘public good’ – under what conditions can we succeed in this non-rivalrous concept? For instance, ideas discussed by a researcher on a blog are already ‘in the public good’ by being revealed publicly.

So what’s the solution? Maybe it’s starting small. Nielsen drew comparison with the trade unions: these are made up of small groups formed around social incentives to help one another. The small groups then join conglomerate when their interests align and they have incentive to. Is that the way that open science might succeed?

Here’s the key thing for me: the problem with many open science projects is they start too broad. Like the unions, many social networks start narrower (in terms of audience) because it is easier to focus on small groups – easier to provide incentives and they can always broaden later. Look at Facebook starting with Ivy League colleges. As Nielsen said, narrowness is a feature and not a bug when you are getting started.

There are lots of interesting things here.  The fact that open science is struggling because the community was not giving back, aka freeloading, is not an issue unique to this area, but to all open projects and discussion of possible remedies is here.  The trade union analogy is a good one, but the same issue occurs there from my experience with those involved often giving varying amounts of time to the union and most of the work being done by a few people.  Ultimately open science is the best way to go for many branches of inquiry simply because the problems science needs to help resolve, such as climate change, need a border push from all of us and the best way to get people involved is to make them a part of the process.  So discussion and work on opening science is more welcome than ever.

I was also interested in this idea of narrowness being a feature, which I can see.  With a smaller focus and indeed group it does seem to me easier to make the common connections that will keep people working together.  Once the focus blurs, overall progress can blur too.  At Virt3c@Hull I had a really interesting set of conversations with Gabriella Coleman, who had studied the motivations of those who work on free software.  She said that in projects where all the participants got together to meet up in the real world and talk and socialise, they were much more focused and cohesive as a group than those projects that did not.

For more from the event, see here.

(Also posted on P2P Foundation Blog.)

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