How to create an open scientific culture?

Doing science in the open, Michael Nielsen, physicsworld.com, May 1, 2009. Excerpts:

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.

…..

To create an open scientific culture that embraces new online tools, two challenging tasks must be achieved: first, build superb online tools; and second, cause the cultural changes necessary for those tools to be accepted. The necessity of accomplishing both these tasks is obvious, yet projects in online science often focus mostly on building tools, with cultural change an afterthought. This is a mistake, for the tools are only part of the overall picture. It took just a few years for the first scientific journals (a tool) to be developed, but many decades of cultural change before journal publication was accepted as the gold standard for judging scientific contributions.

None of this is to discount the challenge of building superb online tools. To develop such tools requires a rare combination of strong design and technical skills, and a deep understanding of how science works. The difficulty is compounded because the people who best understand how science works are scientists themselves, yet building such tools is not something scientists are typically encouraged or well suited to do. Scientific institutions reward scientists for making discoveries within the existing system of discovery; there is little space for people working to change that system. A technologically challenged head of department is unlikely to look kindly on a scientist who suggests that instead of writing papers they would like to spend their research time developing general-purpose tools to improve how science is done.

What about the second task, achieving cultural change? As any revolutionary can attest, that is a tall order. Let me describe two strategies that have been successful in the past, and that offer a template for future success. The first is a top-down strategy that has been successfully used by the open-access (OA) movement. The goal of the OA movement is to make scientific research freely available online to everyone in the world. It is an inspiring goal, and the OA movement has achieved some amazing successes. Perhaps most notably, in April 2008 the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) mandated that every paper written with the support of their grants must eventually be made open access. The NIH is the world’s largest grant agency; this decision is the scientific equivalent of successfully storming the Bastille.

The second strategy is bottom-up. It is for the people building the new online tools to also develop and boldly evangelize ways of measuring the contributions made with the tools. To understand what this means, imagine you are a scientist sitting on a committee that is deciding whether or not to hire a scientist. Their curriculum vitae reports that they have helped build an open-science wiki, and also that they write a blog. Unfortunately, the committee has no easy way of understanding the significance of these contributions, since as yet there are no broadly accepted metrics for assessing such contributions. The natural consequence is that such contributions are typically undervalued.

To make the challenge concrete, ask yourself what it would take for a description of the contribution made through blogging to be reported by a scientist on their curriculum vitae. How could you measure the different sorts of contributions a scientist can make on a blog — outreach, education and research? These are not easy questions to answer. Yet they must be answered before scientific blogging is accepted as a valuable professional scientific contribution.

Recommendation: Read the entire text of this excellent post. [Found via: The Tree of Life, Jonathan A Eisen, May 9, 2009].

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1 Comment »

  1. Jim Till said

    The full chain of links that led to Michael Nielsen’s post:

    From MyOpenArchive to phylogenomics (Twitter, May 10) to The Quantum Pontiff (May 9).

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