Michael Nielson in his TEDtalk begins by talking about Tim Gowers1, a renowned (famous) mathematician, and Cambridge (UK) professor, who asked on his blog in 2009 whether science could be done collectively out in the open. There was a mathematical problem that he would like to solve, and so he set out via his blog to make all his workings open and invite contributions from anyone and everyone, with the anticipation that multiple people working collectively by expressing their ideas and studying the workings and ideas of others would lead to a solution. This experiment was the Polymath project. Michael says that he observed the blog at the time and was amazed by the speed of activity; how ideas would quickly develop and be elaborated upon by others, and sometimes be discarded. It took 37 days for the core problem, and even a harder generalization to be solved.
Michael believes what the Polymath Project demonstrated is the potential of the internet to enable us to expand our ability to solve some of the most intellectually challenging problems. It follows from this that there can be an expansion in the range of scientific problems we can go on to tackle. It means that the rate of scientific discovery can be increased. And Michael suggests that it means ‘a changing in the way we construct knowledge itself’.
There are challengers and problems with this approach. One area is development of the community and the lack of contributions by others. Many times wikis have been suggested and developed to encourage the sharing of knowledge and problem solving in different scientific areas only for them to falter due to lack of participation. Similarly social networks along the same lines have failed. Primarily the current reward structure for researchers in higher education institutions is focused on the publication of academic papers in journals, and consequently researchers are much more likely to put their efforts there than contributing to a collective, community project. So even though the concept might be appealing, and you might think that it would advance scientific endeavour more rapidly, the rewards structure doesn’t allow, or actively discourages participation.
Arguably the Polymath Project succeeded because, even though it was carried out in an unusual way, it was still inherently conservative because academic papers would be ultimately published as a consequence.
Michael suggests that the Open Science movement wants to change the perceptions that data should be locked away even though it could be potentially useful to others, about the hording of scientific ideas, and even the hording of descriptions of problems that researchers believe to be interesting.
The movement is intent on changing this culture of science so that there is greater motivations to share; to share all these different kinds of knowledge. they want to change the values of individual scientists so that they start to see it as part of their job to be sharing their data, to be sharing their code, to be sharing their best ideas and their problems.
This can then lead to changes in the system that then incentivize this kind of activity. It’s not easy, but there are things that scientists and non-scientists can do; as Michael outlines at the end of the video.
All the ideas expressed above are extracted from the video and attributed to Michael Nielson.
The Open Science Project is ‘dedicated to writing and releasing free and open source software for scientific use’. The blog for the project is a very useful source of information. In one particular post it quotes an informal definition of Open Science provided by Michael Nielson:
Open science is the idea that scientific knowledge of all kinds should be openly shared as early as is practical in the discovery process.
One element in the work of scientific researchers is the Lab Notebook. I’m familiar with the concept from my own scientific training in my days as a science undergraduate and postgraduate researcher. It’s not the first time that I’ve been interested in the concept of Open Notebook Science which makes up part of the reading for this topic in the course. I wrote a blog post about it back in 2008 when I was experimenting running multiple blogs (a bit of a daft idea), and received a response from Jean-Claude Bradley the concept originator. Open Notebook Science certainly fulfils the ideal of openly sharing as early as is practically possible.
Since 2004 the Creative Commons has been looking to expand Creative Commons Licensing to the area of science. It had a section know as Science Commons between 2005-2010, but is now called Science at Creative Commons. By licensing in this way, science has a greater chance of being practiced more openly. There are interesting links to organisations that have adopted a Creative Commons Licence to enable Open Science activities to happen.
1 I’ve already encountered Tim Gowers more recently with regard to Open Access, and I’ll be writing about that in more detail later.
In the writing of this post, I’ve also seen writings by Michael Nielson that are relevant to the Open Access section of the course, and I hope to bring those into my later posts.