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The failure of open science

August 26th, 2008 by

Michael Nielsen has a great post on why open science is failing to take off. His main point is that science was never that open to start with, but thanks to the communication needs of the time and the technology available people developed the peer review system. A system that is now hauting us, while top scientists disregard current technology (mostly web-based) that makes the current system look silly.

By the way, Nielsen knows what he is talking about; he wrote the standard text on quantum computation the most highly cited physics publication of the last 25 years according to Google Scholar.

The first example he uses is Nature’s open peer review system:

Inspired by the success of and similar sites, several organizations have created comment sites where scientists can share their opinions of scientific papers. Perhaps the best-known was Nature’s 2006 trial of open commentary on papers undergoing peer review at Nature. The trial was not a success. Nature’s final report terminating the trial explained: There was a significant level of expressed interest in open peer review… A small majority of those authors who did participate received comments, but typically very few, despite significant web traffic. Most comments were not technically substantive. Feedback suggests that there is a marked reluctance among researchers to offer open comments.

His second example is the usual suspect: wikipedia.

John Seigenthaler Sr. has described Wikipedia ...

Seigenthaler has described Wikipedia as "a flawed and irresponsible research tool".

Nielsen marvels as scientists missing the point of wikipedia:

[...] You’ve bought into the current game, and take it for granted that science is only about publishing in specialized scientific journals. But if you take a broader view, you believe science is about discovering how the world works, and sharing that understanding with the rest of humanity.

I’m thinking lately that Thompson research (Web of science, -WoS- endNote) have a monopoly on academic journal access, and are making millions.

They have partnerships with journal publishers; those charge universities, and for the general public it’s ‘please insert coin to continue’ ($20-25 per article!). These are articles we write, and we don’t get paid a dime. Plus, we actually benefit if the general public has access to them.

Even though most blogs are so-so, give an amateur access to the same journals we use, and lots of motivation, and he may come up with original research rivaling the one we do at the ‘walled garden’ of the universities.

Enter Google scholar and zotero. Not that far from Web-of-Science/endnote. Open. Accessible to anyone. Sometimes better. For example, Zotero does things that endnote cannot do, most importantly capturing references from all kinds of websites such as amazon. Google scholar offers citation counts that may be more accurate than the ones in WoS; they do not agree (at all) with the ones that WoS produces, since for Google scholar, an article published online is still one citation, whereas WoS looks at published journals only (the establishment).

What if all articles were accessible to everyone? (have you read ‘the right to read’ by Stallman?):

For Dan Halbert, the road to Tycho began in college—when Lissa Lenz asked to borrow his computer. Hers had broken down, and unless she could borrow another, she would fail her midterm project. There was no one she dared ask, except Dan.

This put Dan in a dilemma. He had to help her—but if he lent her his computer, she might read his books. Aside from the fact that you could go to prison for many years for letting someone else read your books, the very idea shocked him at first. Like everyone, he had been taught since elementary school that sharing books was nasty and wrong—something that only pirates would do.

I just came back from the library here at Max Planck. All the good books are taken :) and since there’s no deadline to return them, I"ll have to bother my peers to get the book from their office. I asked if we could have an electronic version of these books, and the answer was that the publishing companies didn’t provide that. I wonder why. And of course they must be investing enough money on lawyers to fight to feed a few small countries for years.

What is happening is that more often than not, when something is not accessible with a click or two, I just don’t bother reading it. And I love the feeling of a paper book; but I know that getting it is more trouble than it’s worth most of the time. And I’m on a good institution. With lots of money to have an up-to-date library. What happens to the laymen out there in the real world? Well, they seem to be doing the same systematic biased reading, but at a larger scale. If something is not online, they won’t read it. That includes the ‘insert coin to continue’ papers published in traditional journals; when you are not within the walls of a fortress (education institution), you just don’t read it. I’m really curious about how many of our papers publishers sell at that special price of about 25$ a pop.

Are normal people outside the garden walls of academia missing what’s inside? Not fully. Today you can teach yourself anything. I have a friend that designed and built his own house without hiring an architect; everything he needed was available online. He learnt enough about structures, security, materials etc online, reading sites and asking around in forums. Even the hands-on work can be learned by asking construction workers, or just looking at them.

But I do think that full-access to academic publications by anyone may have a huge impact. For a start, it may increase the average quality of blog posts, something I’d really welcome :) ! It would also have an effect on how we write papers. If we knew that the general public (not only those hard-core into our filed) could potentially read our paper, I’m sure our writing styles would be a lot more palatable. And with time, some brilliant scientific contribution could come ‘out of a garage’ (instead of a well-known academic institution. The garage phenomenon happens everday with startups; why not in science? Of course, if you need tools out of the ordinary, like a particle accelerator, to do your work, forget it; but there are lots of expensive things people buy in their garages to foster their hobbies (Hi-fi equipment, parts for a sailing boat, etc). I wouldn’t be impossible to conceive someone buying scientific materials for their hobbies, like lab rats or stereotaxic instruments if you are into neurosciences :) ). For example, one of the top participants on the Netflix contest is in fact a psychology afficionado that doesn’t work under the dome of any university.

Because, let’s be honest, sometimes the university environment is not the most condutive to great work. If we could create an ideal intellectual environment in a living room or a garage, bypassing paperwork, teaching load, and other obstacles, it could be a lot of fun. And productive. In fact, it has happened. The legendary example is the Institute of Advanced Study (IAS). The IAS, where von Neumann’s machine was built, was basically a dorm near Princeton, but not officially affiliated with Princeton, started by some philanthropists who wanted scientists to stay there, have their lodging and food paid for, and get their science on.  Big time. Einstein was one of the first residents, as were von Neumann, Kurt Godel, and J. Oppenheimer.

Free access to publications and, what is more important, a stigma-free scientific society that accepts data and contributions from people working out of a garage, could make this possible.

Why the open science ideal is not happening

Here’s Nielsen’s main hypothesis: the old system of paper journals and snail-mail letters to reviews worked to incentivize sharing. However, in modern times the effect it has is just the opposite:

This is ironic, for the value of cultural openness was understood centuries ago by many of the founders of modern science; indeed, the journal system is perhaps the most open system for the transmission of knowledge that could be built with 17th century media. The adoption of the journal system was achieved by subsidizing scientists who published their discoveries in journals. This same subsidy now inhibits the adoption of more effective technologies, because it continues to incentivize scientists to share their work in conventional journals, and not in more modern media.

Some barriers are social; of course those in the establishment (i.e., journal editors and publishers) would be reticent to change. And economists would argue that no matter how easy it is – from the point of view of technology-  to disseminate information, people still pay for it gladly so there’s no point of giving it away for free. In fact, you should offer something in exchange for those people who are now getting paid for their efforts if you want them to support the ‘extreme open science’ movement. But here’s the catch: the authors are not really paid, so they would be all for it. The intermediaries (book and journal publishers, database creators, etc) are the ones who could have an interest in blocking an open science movement; but not the authors. In fact, in terms of money we get nothing for journal articles and next to nothing for books (With textbooks being the exception).

How the ideal world of open science looks like

Nielsen presents a few examples of working tools. Since 1991 physicists have been uploading their papers to the arXiv, often at about the same time as they submit to a journal. The papers are made available within hours for anyone to read.

Some fields work very well under a fully open paradigm already. The example he uses is programming. Some people would expect the level of shared code to be so-so, but this is not the case. A walkthrough the forums will show that top programming minds are sharing their ideas and having a kick out of it (it buids ‘street cred’).

Making all information not just human readable but also machine readable; there are people wanting this left and right; some don’t even know they want it, but will once they see it at work. I’ll post more about this as my ideas develop. Working on semantic web issues makes for a good amount of thinking on this line.

Nielsen proposes friendFeed as an interesting place where barriers of entry are low, although he warns that most scientists won’t have the time for microblogging. He follows about 200 people he ‘knows’, and some collaboration could easily come out of friendFeed. For example:

Suppose that for a particular problem, Alice estimates that it would take her 4-5 weeks to acquire the required expertise and solve the problem. That’s a long time, and so the problem is on the backburner. Unbeknownst to Alice, though, there is another scientist in another part of the world, Bob, who has just the skills to solve the problem in less than a day. This is not at all uncommon. Quite the contrary; my experience is that this is the usual situation. Consider the example of Grossmann, who saved Einstein what might otherwise have been years of extra work.

This is the power of open science: social networking on steroids! It’s really true that in my experience at least, we park a problem because one of the steps is not trivial to do… only to learn, maybe years later, that this step is a solved issue in a neighboring discipline that we ignored. Better communication and networking (like in the fictional Alice example) would definitely fill this hole.

Another of Nielsen’s crucial points is in the line of our previous ‘attention economy’ posts: "Expert attention, the ultimate scarce resource in science, is very inefficiently allocated under existing practices for collaboration." This is a great topic for another blog post. If anyone wants to take it and run with it, please do (behold the wonders of a blog!).

A general reminder: is an open blog. If you have something you want to discuss with the readership, feel free to make a post. It doesn’t have to be earth-shattering (as you see, I post both long and short things) to be interesting.


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