A Brave New World of Open Science

May 26, 2011 § 1 Comment

In 2009, Timothy Gowers, a renowned mathematician at Cambridge University, proposed a difficult and interesting mathematical problem, of which he did not have the answer. Unlike seeking the answer in the traditional manner (by whipping hordes of graduate students and post-doc fellows), he instead posted the question on his blog and asked for anyone and everyone’s input. He received useful input from individuals with backgrounds varying from high school math teachers to other established mathematical researchers. At the end of 37 days, he declared that the problem was solved and his experiment with Open Science, the Polymath Project, was a success.

Could this be the next giant leap in the evolution of scientific discovery, in which scientists use the fullest potential of the internet to collaborate? If so, an Open Science movement could effectively integrate teams of scientists from different laboratories across the world to cooperatively tackle scientific questions.

Imagine the benefits.

The time involved with such open studies could be dramatically decreased, as the workforce behind each idea increases beyond a single lab. In addition, the breadth of a single idea could be explored in infinite directions since each individual contributor can provide a slightly different flavor to the mix.

And to me, the most important aspect of Open Science, would be a less repetitive science. Have you ever been literature diving and found two or more papers from different groups that basically tell you the same thing? Sure, they are slightly different and they were published within a few months of each other, but could that time have been spent more efficiently through collaboration?

Open Science proposes to rip down the iron curtain that separates scientists and, ideally, will unite the community’s ideas and discoveries.

As you are probably feeling, this all sounds inspiring and awesome…in a perfect world void of traditional scientific practices. I couldn’t agree more!

The biggest obstacles that Open Science faces are competition and credit. Cooperation is great attribute for a community, but competition is the dark rider that motivates that single, amazing creation to emerge from deep within the individual. And when that idea finally materializes into something of worth, your name better be permanently attached to it. A selfish and sinister comment, but how far is it from the truth?

I want to believe in Open Science and do believe that it will have its place in the scientific community in various forms, but I don’t see it becoming the practiced norm.

Another question that comes to mind is if a change toward Open Science is possible, who will lead a transition of this magnitude? Young scientists still need to build their credentials in order to be noticed. Established scientists have nothing to lose, but they will have trouble sustaining an Open Science revolution if they cannot be an example of scientific achievement without traditional accomplishment.

The main mission of the Neuro Bureau is to instigate the cultural change required for Open Science and, specifically, Open Neuroscience to become commonplace. By sharing our data, tools, ideas and resources, we are proactively collaborating with the greater neuroscientific community.

Please comment on this blog about your beliefs in building a scientific community that could be sustained on Open Science beliefs and practices. Especially share any ideas that you may have that can possibly give strength to such a movement. In other words, go beyond the negative side effects of Open Science and invent a way in which they can be resolved.

For more information on what Open Science is, and can be, please check out this video:

Alex Poplawsky

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