Open Science #ioe12

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.

Michael Nielson

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.

Experiment and discussion

I’ve recently written a couple of blog post that are receive a bit of attention, the first was about the changing role of education and the second about Nurphy a new online service for conversations. I’ve decided to see if I can combine then by asking question about one on the other and seeing what happens. It’s a bit of an experiment really.

So, here goes. I’ve posted the following up as a conversation that anyone can join, once registered with Nurphy. Will people be willing to sign up for an untested service at this early stage? I’ll find out. The conversation starts here.

Whatever, I’d still like people’s opinions about the following.

Is the rise of the Professional Amateur Pro-Am, the increase in open educational resources (OER), personal learning environments (PLE), and greater significance of informal learning and research going to lead to a move away from an emphasis on institutional, formal learning?

As people are able to continually express their skills, abilities and achievements via social media, will formalized accreditation, with potentially out-dated assessment systems, be less relevant?

Or are formal learning and research institutions able to adapt quickly enough to the new requirements of society?

Open research – Professional Amateurs – Science in Action

I recently wrote a post that touched upon openness of and elitism in education. I just wanted to express a few more quick thoughts on this, though it is something I intend to return to with a more in-depth look at open education and resources.

I feel the elitism of universities doesn’t lie with who is allowed to become a students, it is more related to the fact that resources are securely tied up within universities making those resources inaccessible to the majority. Resources in this context could be books or journals (hard copies or online with paid for institutional subscriptions), the academic discourse, the talents of faculty, the research equipment and facilities, past Ph.D. theses, etc. In addition, it relates to the subjects and specific topics that are deemed to be worthy of teaching or researching, or what the funders deem so.

Universities deal in the currency of degrees, a passport in society. Why in times of recession, such as at present, should it be that otherwise capable individuals are denied their chance of a degree passport because the government puts a squeeze on the number of places available in order to balance the books? A further point is the question of assessment, and is it really a useful measure, or is the ongoing presentation of someone’s work, either within a university or indeed outside it (informal learning), a better reflection of their capabilities and abilities? Indeed, evidence is beginning to accumulate indicating that those who present their work using social media place themselves in a more advantageous position for employment. And shouldn’t publicly funded research be in the public domain anyway? I’ve previously written about Open Notebook Science.

I can envisage how much of this could be opened up to greater access, but I was having a problem with scientific equipment and facilities and how that might be liberated.

There have been some interesting examples where institution based science projects have reached out to the public for assistance. There was SETI were you signed up and your computer were utilized while it was on (and you weren’t using it) to process data to search for extra-terrestrial life. Then I recall a project were public volunteers were called for to look for new astronomical bodies in tens of thousands of photographs of space; these were provided online and after doing a test to see how accurately you could assess the images you could process the live data. It was discovered that humans were much better at seeing differences in the data than if the processing was done electronically with image recognition.

Therefore, in a rather detached way people were participating in scientific research.

However, I then heard the repeat of the Friday 25 September Science in Action programme* on BBC World Service at 4:32GMT on Sunday morning. (Sometimes I’m awake in the night or wake up early.) Listen to the programme. The significant part where this blog post is concerned is the DIYbio article. The article talked about people who are undertaking scientific research, bio-engineering in this case, in their own homes using inexpensive equipment, some bought secondhand on Ebay(R) for a fraction of its cost new to a research lab. They are able to design and create new biological parts, devices and systems. Integral to this approach is the support from online communities, for example, sometimes with professionals voluntarily assisting these communities.

Clay Shirky has talked about the increase in mass amateurization, without being amateurish. This is the breaking down of the dichotomy between ‘experts’ and amateurs, with the creation of a new category – the Professional Amateurs or Pro-Ams. Charles Leadbeater in his book We-Think talks about how mass creativity has seen sites including Wikipedia and Youtube, and the Linux operating system rise in prominence and signal a shift in the way we and society can organise ourselves; participation becoming the key element.

All of this, for me raises the question, “Are universities, education systems and society more generally getting ready for the future of learning and research?”

* This particular programme doesn’t seem to be archived, though you can usually listen to the previous two recent episodes, so I guess you’ve probably got a couple of week to hear it before the link is broken.