Friday, September 5, 2008

LiveScience: Era of Scientific Secrecy Near End

Era of Scientific Secrecy Near End / By Robin Lloyd, LiveScience Senior Editor / posted: 02 September 2008 11:30 am ET

Secrecy and competition to achieve breakthroughs have been part of scientific culture for centuries, but the latest Internet advances are forcing a tortured openness throughout the halls of science and raising questions about how research will be done in the future.

The openness at the technological and cultural heart of
the Internet is fast becoming an irreplaceable tool for many scientists, especially biologists, chemists and physicists — allowing them to forgo the long wait to publish in a print journal and instead to blog about early findings and even post their data and lab notes online. The result: Science is moving way faster and more people are part of the dialogue.


Open Science

The open science approach forces researchers to grapple with the question of whether they can still get sufficient credit for their ideas, said physicist Sabine Hossenfelder, co-organizer of a conference on the topic set to begin Sept. 8 at the Perimeter Institute in Ontario, Canada.

[BTW: I Will Be Attending This Unique Conference
Science in the 21st Century: Science, Society, and Information Technology [] / Look For Conference-Related Postings on the _Scholarship 2.0_ Blog [] within the next two weeks]


Open science is a shorthand for
technological tools, many of which are Web-based, that help scientists communicate about their findings. At its most radical, the ethos could be described as "no insider information." Information available to researchers, as far as possible, is made available to absolutely everyone.

Beyond email, teleconferencing and search engines, there are many examples: blogs where scientists can correspond casually about their work long before it is published in a journal; social networks that are scientist friendly such as Laboratree and Ologeez; GoogleDocs and wikis which make it easy for people to collaborate via the Web on single documents; a site called Connotea that allows scientists to share bookmarks for research papers; sites like Arxiv, where physicists post their "pre-print" research papers before they are published in a print journal; OpenWetWare which allows scientists to post and share new innovations in lab techniques; the Journal of Visualized Experiments, an open-access site where you can see videos of how research teams do their work; GenBank, an online searchable database for DNA sequences; Science Commons, a non-profit project at MIT to make research more efficient via the Web, such as enabling easy online ordering of lab materials referenced in journal articles; virtual conferences; online open-access (and free) journals like Public Library of Science (PLoS); and open-source software that can often be downloaded free off Web sites.

[BTW: Several Of These Innovations Have Been Profiled In My SciTechNet(sm) Blog [] and/or The Scholarship 2.0 Blog []

The upshot: Science is no longer under lock and key, trickling out as it used to at the discretion of laconic professors and tense PR offices. For some scientists, secrets no longer serve them. But not everyone agrees.

Networked Cyborgs

Just a few decades ago, as a scientist, here is how you did your work: You toiled in obscurity and relative solitude.


However, today,
more and more scientists, as well as researchers in the humanities, operate like transparent, networked cyborgs. Background research is mostly done online, not in the library. Some data and preliminary research might be posted online via a blog or open notebook. Early write-ups of the work might be announced to the public, or at least discussed online with peers. And these early write-ups might also be posted to an online publication that is not peer-reviewed in the strict sense.


"In areas like my own subfields of theoretical physics," said MIT physicist David Kaiser, "the only constraint [on how rapidly one generates research papers] is, 'Did you have more coffee that day?' We aren't usually held up trying to get an instrument to work, or slogging through complicated data analysis."Most people think faster is better, but there are other issues.

Is It A Good Thing?

There is "no question" that all efforts to make science more open are positive for the progress of science, says open science proponent and chemist Jean-Claude Bradley at Drexel University in Philadelphia, who posts his lab notebook online and started a blog in 2005 called UsefulChemistry where he and his colleagues regularly discuss chemistry problems as well as Web 2.0 tools and the technical and philosophical issues they raise.His online notebook and blog definitely make it easier to communicate with colleagues, he said. Such sharing also makes it easier for others to "replicate" scientists' work — try it themselves and convince themselves that you are right. And this replication issue is one of the principles behind scientific research. Anyone who has written down a recipe for a friend knows that we all tend to spell things out more clearly when sharing them than we would if we were just taking notes for ourselves in our own shorthand.

Open science also has the potential to prevent discrimination in access to information. Arxiv, the site for posting pre-print physics papers, was started in 1991 by Cornell physicist Paul Ginsparg, then at Los Alamos National Laboratory, to help provide equal access to prepublication information to graduate students, postdocs and researchers in developing countries.

[BTW: Paul Ginsparg will be one of several Major Players attending/presenting at The Conference []]


And open science benefits the public, Bradley said. He tries to keep his posts fairly accessible (although this is not the case for all open notebooks and open science blogs).


"It's not clear to me that professional scientists or people in academic institutions have a
monopoly on good ideas," he said. "There are very smart people outside of academia, for example hobbyists or people in industry who could contribute, and having more contributors can only help. The same applies to interdisciplinary and cross-disciplinary approaches."


Drawbacks of Open Science

One of the biggest fears of nearly all researchers is that someone else hears what you're doing and beats you to publication. That means you wasted a lot of time (and most researchers work extremely long hours, so loss of productivity is especially painful and can also harm one's chances for
getting a job or promotion or funding for the next research project). Once you publicly reveal your thoughts, data or experimental results, some say, you lose control over ownership of that information. This topic is covered by an area of law called intellectual property, as well as patent law, and there can be significant money to be fought over when it comes to patents.

Hossenfelder, the conference organizer, says she knows of several examples in which scientists have had an idea for something, talked about it openly and then somebody else has published the fleshed-out idea first without giving any credit beyond an acknowledgment to the original idea-holder. Acknowledgments don't advance careers.

However there are solutions to this, she said. For instance, the prominent scientific journal Nature encourages authors to include brief summaries of which author contributed what to a project. Some say that online posts provide a time-stamped record of when an experiment was documented. Those stamps can easily be arbitrarily altered after the fact, but it might also be possible to "lock" posts at a certain date after which they could not be changed without some sign-off permission to break the lock, Hossenfelder said. [snip]

Fear of Losing Peer Review

Another drawback of open science can be that results go public before they should. In science, experimental results are frequently proven wrong by subsequent work. Yet even peer review cannot ensure against this, nor can it prevent outright fraud, as proven by
a 2005 case involving a South Korean scientist who claimed to have achieved the first cloning of a human embryo. A later examination of his work showed he had fabricated his results.


"The social system of science has become so complicated, unregulated and dispersed in terms of geography and disciplines, so peer review has been elevated to a principle that unifies a fragmented field," Biagioli said.


And today, Arxiv, one of the most frequently cited examples of open science, has no peer review for individual papers, but it has begun to add in some constraints on allowable authors. The site used to allow anyone with email addresses associated with academic institutions to post their papers. Now, authors of research papers who post in Arxiv are vetted before they can post for the first time. In some ways, things are tightening up when it comes to openness in physics, Kaiser said. In any case, the function of print journals, in physics at least, is changing.

"Ease of sharing everything prior to peer review is flourishing, and in my opinion very few physicists are reading journals for information these days," Kaiser said. "Journals have largely lost their information function."


For The Good Of Truth, Humanity, Economies?

Another argument in favor of open science is sort of a big picture issue for humanity, scientific truth and economies, Neylon said.

"Making things more open leads to more innovation and more economic activity, and so the technology that underlies the Web makes it possible to share in a way that was never really possible before, while at same time it also means that kinds of models and results generated are much more rich," he said.

This is the open source approach to software development, as opposed to commercial closed source approaches, Neylon said. The internals are protected by developers and lawyers, but the platform is available for the public to build on in very creative ways.

"Science was always about mashing up, taking one result and applying it to your [work] in a different way," Neylon said. "The question is 'Can we make that as effective as samples data and analysis as it does for a map and set of addresses for a coffee shop?' That is the vision."


Thanks to Sabine Hossenfelder For The HeadsUp !


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