Michael Nielsen and the open science revolution

@IleneDawn tweeted a link to an interesting video featureing Michael Nielsen, a pioneer in quantum computing and author of the recently published “Reinventing Discovery: The New Era of Networked Science.” (Just purchased for my nook!) This is a timely find, following up on my recent post aiming to explore novel or interesting ways to integrate twitter into the classroom.

Nielsen opens his talk using the example of the polymath project, which utilizes a blog to engage a large community of mathematicians in solving difficult problems in the blog’s comment section. This social problem solving endeavor reminds me of another successful attempt used in biology: Foldit. Foldit is an online video game where participants attempt to fold proteins to the best of their ability.  The efficacy of this approach has led to papers published in peer-reviewed journals such as PNAS. These examples support the claim that social networks can provide a powerful tool in facilitating communal problem solving.

One major drawback to the success of this approach that Nielsen addresses in his talk is active participation in these projects. He notes that despite great enthusiasm for these projects, the greatest thinkers in a given field fail to contribute, leaving sites associated with open science projects “virtual ghost towns.” Nielsen provides one example of a great success that spawned a data-sharing revolution in the field of molecular biology.

Genebank originally encountered the lack of contribution that many of these open science endeavors face. In 1996, leading molecular biologists met in Bermuda to address ways in which they could encourage scientist to share their sequence data with the online community.  From this meeting, they came up with two main principles: 1) “That once human genetic data is taken in the lab, it should be immediately uploaded to a site like genebank;” and 2) “That this data would be in the public domain.” These principles one their own may not have been sufficient to encourage participation; fortunately, national funding organizations such as NIH supported this initiative and wrote it into policy.

What Nielsen calls for, ultimately, is an open science revolution. He argues that scientists currently lack rewards to shift some of their valuable time to participating in open science programs. The drive to publish their own research and to keep secret their most important findings prevents them from dispersing information in a public way or posing problems for a community to solve. Nielsen argues that this revolution in the culture of science is not unlike the revolution that took place with the advent of scientific journals. What we need to do, as a scientific community, is support this revolution and encourage those who are compelled to participate in it.  He provides three suggestions for moving in this direction:

1) Get involved in an open science project.

2) Start an open science program – Adopt currently available approaches to open science. If more ambitious, develop novel ways to disperse and collect scientific information, or explore novel venues for community problem solving.

3) Give credit to colleagues practicing open science – Scientists may currently be discouraged by peers from this new mode of practicing science. One of the minor incentives for exploring these new technologies is simply peer support.

Now to think of how we, as a community of scientists, can best employ these technologies in our own fields. (And to read Nielsen’s book!)

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