Science. Communication. Community.
Though research itself is primarily “offline,” academics and entrepreneurs say that science of the future will be open and online, thanks to experimental transparency and new modes of publishing. But who will pay?
In late October 2012, about 75 academics, entrepreneurs, hackers, and scientists gathered for the third annual Open Science Summit. The Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California served as the backdrop for two days of presentations and spirited discussion on the future of scientific collaboration, new models for distribution and access to research, and the latest developments in DIY biotech and personalized medicine.
The diversity of topics covered – from harnessing crowdfunding for science to making experiments more transparent and reproducible – was unified by the participants’ common goal, to make science more open, accessible, and (in some cases) free. Here are some thoughts on the summit, delivered better late than never due to the author’s dissertation madness that only recently ended.
Open access scholarly publishing, the boom in social networking, and the popularization of – and controversy surrounding – topics like climate change and gene therapy have all contributed to bringing science to the cusp of its own “version 2.0.” A major recurring theme at the summit was that the practice, presentation, and people of science have not yet caught up to the fast lane afforded by the internet.
Another topic discussed at the summit was the major scholarly artifact, the scientific paper. Still confined to print (or its digital equivalent, the PDF), traditional papers have results and methods that are sometimes incomplete and opaque. Peer review is still slow, collaborations are stifled, and the pace of research is hindering sound science and major breakthroughs. In the case of medical research, it may even be costing lives.
The summit’s consensus solution to all these woes was “openness,” with each presenter having their own idea of how this can be achieved: social networking for scientists (Academia.edu), sharing data sets online (Mendeley, Figshare, Ayasdi), changing how we discuss and annotate papers (JournalLab, Hypothes.is), or improving the infrastructure for making science reproducible (Open Science Framework, Reproducibility Initiative). All these ventures have slightly different takes on how research can be accelerated and improved, and some don’t yet have comprehensive services on offer.
A major hurdle that any of these open science sites has to overcome is the behavior of scientists and the conduct of science, which is largely done offline. The ruminative nature of science can’t and shouldn’t be replaced by instant updates, and some presenters understood that changes to the scientific workflow, peer review, and publishing have to take place organically from within science, not as outside impositions. Indeed, the discussion surrounding how to merge online and offline worlds of science highlighted that open science will have to be built from the ground up.
New modes of peer review (both pre and post-publication), the maintenance of reputation online (whether as author, commenter, or reviewer), the diversification of journal impact factor into a multitude of altmetrics (new filters for quantifying and understanding scholarly contributions), and especially, the preservation of digital content in perpetuity all require new, robust systems that have to be more than just flashes in the pan. Some of these endeavors may become the new Facebook of science, but most will probably turn into tomorrow’s equivalent of Myspace.
Things seemed a little less murky in the biotech and medical device presentations at the summit. Outfits that distribute plasmids, antibodies, and DNA source code, like Addgene and Open Biotechnology Inc., are empowering researchers with virtually unlimited molecular tools. Personalized drug discovery is becoming possible with services like Assay Depot, and other available open tools are helping people make huge strides in our understanding of rare diseases.
So many other cool developments were discussed at the summit, including the 3D printing of vasculature and the harnessing of big data in genomics for personalized cancer treatments, and all of the summit’s presentations are viewable here. Other coverage of the meeting can also be found on Mendeley’s blog.
The lingering question for me was, who pays for all this openness?
The business models of some of the science sharing sites mentioned above varied widely: some are purely academic experiments while others are explicitly for-profit and/or rely on advertising revenue. Since the emergence of open access publishing has at least partly been a response to the commercialization of scholarship, it remains to be seen whether making money off science is compatible with sharing.