Open Access News

News from the open access movement

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Open article on open science

M. Mitchell Waldrop, Science 2.0: Great New Tool, or Great Risk?  Scientific American, January 9, 2008.  Excerpt:

Welcome to a Scientific American experiment in "networked journalism," in which readers—you—get to collaborate with the author to give a story its final form.

The article, below, is a particularly apt candidate for such an experiment: it's my feature story on "Science 2.0," which describes how researchers are beginning to harness wikis, blogs and other Web 2.0 technologies as a potentially transformative way of doing science. The draft article appears here, several months in advance of its print publication, and we are inviting you to comment on it. Your inputs will influence the article’s content, reporting, perhaps even its point of view.

So consider yourself invited. Please share your thoughts about the promise and peril of Science 2.0.—just post your inputs in the Comment section below. To help get you started, here are some questions to mull over:

  • What do you think of the article itself? Are there errors? Oversimplifications? Gaps?
  • What do you think of the notion of "Science 2.0?" Will Web 2.0 tools really make science much more productive? Will wikis, blogs and the like be transformative, or will they be just a minor convenience?
  • Science 2.0 is one aspect of a broader Open Science movement, which also includes Open-Access scientific publishing and Open Data practices. How do you think this bigger movement will evolve? ...
  • When young scientists speak out on an open blog or wiki, do they risk hurting their careers?
  • Is "open notebook" science always a good idea? Are there certain aspects of a project that researchers should keep quite, at least until the paper is published?

...A small but growing number of researchers--and not just the younger ones--have begun to carry out their work via the wide-open blogs, wikis and social networks of Web 2.0. And although their efforts are still too scattered to be called a movement--yet--their experiences to date suggest that this kind of Web-based "Science 2.0" is not only more collegial than the traditional variety, but considerably more productive.

"Science happens not just because of people doing experiments, but because they're discussing those experiments," explains Christopher Surridge, editor of the Web-based journal, Public Library of Science On-Line Edition (PLoS ONE). Critiquing, suggesting, sharing ideas and data--communication is the heart of science, the most powerful tool ever invented for correcting mistakes, building on colleagues' work and creating new knowledge. And not just communication in peer-reviewed papers; as important as those papers are, says Surridge, who publishes a lot of them, "they're effectively just snapshots of what the authors have done and thought at this moment in time. They are not collaborative beyond that, except for rudimentary mechanisms such as citations and letters to the editor."

The technologies of Web 2.0 open up a much richer dialog, says Bill Hooker, a postdoctoral cancer researcher at the Shriners Hospital for Children in Portland, Ore., and the author of a three-part survey of open-science efforts in the group blog, 3 Quarks Daily. "To me, opening up my lab notebook means giving people a window into what I'm doing every day. That's an immense leap forward in clarity. In a paper, I can see what you've done. But I don't know how many things you tried that didn’t work. It's those little details that become clear with open notebook, but are obscured by every other communication mechanism we have. It makes science more efficient." ...

Of course, many scientists remain highly skeptical of such openness--especially in the hyper-competitive biomedical fields, where patents, promotion and tenure can hinge on being the first to publish a new discovery. From that perspective, Science 2.0 seems dangerous: using blogs and social networks for your serious work feels like an open invitation to have your online lab notebooks vandalized--or worse, have your best ideas stolen and published by a rival.

To Science 2.0 advocates, however, that atmosphere of suspicion and mistrust is an ally. "When you do your work online, out in the open,” Hooker says, “you quickly find that you're not competing with other scientists anymore, but cooperating with them." ...

[S]ince the time of Galileo and Newton, scientists have built up their knowledge about the world by "crowd-sourcing" the contributions of many researchers and then refining that knowledge through open debate. "Web 2.0 fits so perfectly with the way science works, it's not whether the transition will happen but how fast," he says.

The OpenWetWare project at MIT is an early success. Launched in the spring of 2005 by graduate students working for MIT biological engineers Drew Endy and Thomas Knight...OpenWetWare is a wiki....

[U]nlike the oft-defaced Wikipedia, the system will let users make changes only after they have registered and established that they belong to a legitimate research organization. "We've never yet had a case of vandalism," Kelly says. Even if they did, the wiki automatically maintains a copy of every version of every page posted: "You could always just roll back the damage with a click of your mouse." ...

Unfortunately, this kind of technical safeguard does little to address a second concern: Getting scooped and losing the credit. "That's the first argument people bring to the table," says Drexel University chemist Jean-Claude Bradley, who created his independent laboratory wiki, UsefulChem, in December 2005....

[T]he Web provides better protection that the traditional journal system, Bradley maintains. Every change on a wiki gets a time-stamp, he notes, “so if someone actually did try to scoop you, it would be very easy to prove your priority--and to embarrass them. I think that's really what is going to drive open science: the fear factor. If you wait for the journals, your work won't appear for another six to nine months. But with open science, your claim to priority is out there right away...."

Meanwhile, [Timo] Hannay has been taking the Nature group into the Web 2.0 world aggressively. "Our real mission isn't to publish journals, but to facilitate scientific communication," he says. "We've recognized that the Web can completely change the way that communication happens." Among the efforts are Nature Network, a social network designed for scientists; Connotea, a social bookmarking site patterned on the popular site, but optimized for the management of research references; and even an experiment in open peer review, with pre-publication manuscripts made available for public comment....

Update (1/17/08). Also see Curtis Brainard's article on this in the Columbia Journalism Review.