August 19, 2012

Four steps to open science

As an advocate of open science, I think there are four steps in the process toward a really open scientific culture:

  • print journals were the first, early, step, because they allowed dissemination of scientific knowledge to a wider audience. They were the killer app of the 17th century, combining the invention of the printing press with the idea of periodically bundling up new ideas and disseminating them to anyone who cared in one package.
  • the "open access" movement is a second step, because it removes the monetary barrier to knowledge acquisition. Modern journals need not be printed or paper or transmitted on wheels: they can live as bits in abundant persistent storage media, and be transmitted over high speed communication lines. The cost of assembling and disseminating a new idea is negligible.
  • the "pre-publication review" movement is a third step, because it de-privileges a limited set of reviewers and makes research results available earlier. The chain of scientific progress can have shorter links (because people are aware of- and build on new ideas earlier), and more eyes and brains can scrutinize new ideas. Journal editors of old had to seek expert of opinions of a few, but thanks to the wonderful invention of costless one-to-many broadcasting, there is no reason to rely on the few, rather than the many.
  • the replacement of the "article unit model" with an "open-source" science model in which knowledge is assembled from bits and pieces from thousands of sources, constantly updated, constantly reviewed, constantly tested against new evidence.

The last step may be the most difficult, because it goes so much against the culture of competition between individual scientists and research groups. Why do people wait on new ideas and new results? Because they either want to assemble enough material for an LPU, or develop their ideas exhaustively to merit publication in a prestige journal.

What if Newton had published a couple of paragraphs on his calculus idea in 1666 and not decades later? What if he were able to tweet his apple incident and not wait to publish his Principia? What if Darwin had not delayed his publication of Origin until he was afraid of being scooped, but had mentioned the idea decades earlier when he conceived them? Perhaps, someone else would have taken their ideas and run with them, and we'd be living in a 2050s level of technological progress today. Perhaps, if others who followed them did the same, technology on earth would have advanced by centuries relative to its current level.

There are limits to our ability to digest and build on new ideas, but I would argue that getting rid of the "article unit model" and adopting an "open-source" attitude would accelerate the pace of scientific progress. Journal articles won't disappear, but rather than being at the vanguard of progress, they will be at its rear, like stable releases of open source projects that weed out the bad, keep the good, and give everybody a reference point to work against.

1 comment:

dougsarchaeology said...

ScARF is a good example of the forth step you are talking about. It is the very specific topic of Scottish Archaeology but is something that can be replicated elsewhere