Getting with open science

I have just come across a fantastic blog and a particularly insightful post by Michael Nielsen, an Australian physicist living in Canada who seems to have turned his mind to writing about science. The post is about how academic science needs to catch-up in disseminating information with new technologies.

These failures of science online are all examples where scientists show a surprising reluctance to share knowledge that could be useful to others. 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.

The situation is analogous to the government subsidies for corn-based ethanol in the United States. In the early days these seemed to many people to be a good idea, encouraging the use of what people hoped would be a more efficient fuel. But now we understand that there are more energy-efficient alternatives, such as grass-based cellulose ethanol. Unfortunately, the subsidies for corn-based ethanol are still in place, and now inhibit the adoption of the more efficient technologies.

We should aim to create an open scientific culture where as much information as possible is moved out of people’s heads and labs, onto the network, and into tools which can help us structure and filter the information. This means everything – data, scientific opinions, questions, ideas, folk knowledge, workflows, and everything else – the works. Information not on the network can’t do any good.

And there is a ton more. I commend this to everyone.

2 thoughts on “Getting with open science”

  1. Too many scientists are afraid of getting scooped if they share an idea before it’s accepted for publication by a refereed journal.

    In their own humble way, patent systems are supposed to help solve problems like this (i.e., situations where the value of trade secrets prevents otherwise efficient collaborations) by granting property rights in ideas.

    But in the U.S. at least nobody acts like patents are for inventors anymore. They’re either bargaining chips for large corporations in internecine conflicts for slightly larger market share or placer mines for speculators in legal rights.

    Unless patent rights get stronger and cultural norms both within academia and industry change, that’s the way things are going to continue. Unfortunately, one Australian judge’s recent ruling uneforceable an employment agreement assigning IP ownership to the employer is a step in the wrong direction.


  2. Not sure the ethanol subsidy is a good analogy here. It’s not really that you’re subsidising scientists that’s the problem, it’s that you’re then tying their future career prospects to publication in academic journals. Although even that’s not entirely the case – some people do make good careers and get a high profile as popularisers more than straight academics (Tim Harford?). Could be changed relatively easily, and it does look to me like there are changes in how blogs, etc, are treated in academia.

    In econ at least there are working papers and conferences to get information out there, and journals don’t appear to mind much if people have early versions posted on the Web (this is NOT common across all disciplines, however, which I discovered rather to my detriment at one point). Maybe the stakes are lower in econ, though.

    And it’s always nice having more Ozzies here in a town “outside Toronto, Canada.”


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