Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Open Science

One aspect of open science that I find compelling is the tremendous savings in terms of time, effort, and resources that can be achieved with the disclosure of what one of our readings labeled "dark data.'  This is the data on failed experiments that rarely gets exposure in the research community.  If such failures were revealed in some forum where other interested researchers could gain access, the likelihood of other researchers structuring their experiments in a way that is the same or similar to previously failed experiments would be reduced.  In fact, a researcher interested in solving the same problem being addressed by other investigators may be able to derive modifications or new approaches by reviewing the failure of an experiment rather than having to experience the failure on their own first.  Such an approach would save time and money. 

One powerful example that was used in one of our readings was that of a research line in the pharmaceutical industry where literally billions of dollars could be expended by multiple researchers and corporations performing the same failed experimentation just at different times.  Sharing these failures could reduce the duplication of failed experiments, quicken the pace of discovery, and shorten the time required to obtain governmental approvals.  Getting from concept through formulation to trials and eventual approval could be significantly reduced if researchers were cooperating rather than merely competing.

Of course, since the pharmaceutical and other biological research entities can afford to lose billions of dollars repeating the same failed experiments in isolation, shows that big dollars are at stake driven by discoveries.  The dollars involved in scientific discovery are much greater (in many cases) than that which is part of the conversation with OER and some other open fields of interest.  Patents for end results and processes are currently lucrative to inventors and discoverers.  This path to fortune seems to be a greater impediment to the concept of making science more open.

One other interesting point made in our readings is that there needs to be consideration of other incentives in the scientific research domain that may punish open behavior.  The principle incentive mismatch is that there is limited career reward for participating in open projects when the coin of the realm in most scientific research is academic publication.  Many journals will reject research that is open and has been made available through channels where open research is shared.  There are also the issues that arise when sharing of the research results in the researcher being "scooped" by another researcher who builds on their work and published first.  I thought the anecdote shared by Micheal Nielsen about Galileo's communication of his discovery of the rings around Saturn was interesting.  I had not heard the story before.  But Galileo communicating with other researchers with an anagram reporting his discovery as a way to protect his position as the initial discoverer, and to hide his research, shows that these pressures are not new.

We are discovering on our path through the openness conversation that the advantages to open interactions is the improvement in the scope of discovery and the speed at which it occurs when many hands (and heads) are participating.  There has been a cultural standard established that individuals benefit from being discovers and that their discoveries have immense value in financial terms.  Changing this to communal identities and sharing in the "value" of these discoveries will require a rethinking of centuries of tradition and culture around research and discovery.

1 comment:

  1. "Changing this to communal identities and sharing in the 'value' of these discoveries will require a rethinking of centuries of tradition and culture around research and discovery."

    While this sounds like an overwhelming task, I don't think it is. New generations of researchers inherit the values cultivated in them by their mentors. We only need a few in the first generation, then there will be many more in the next, etc. And one faculty member can influence young professionals for decades.

    I think we are seeing this changing of tradition before our very eyes... At least, I hope we are. It was extremely satisfying to see, after I left USU, that several people who I had worked with chose to stay in the area of open education, and they are evangelizing and passing on those values to others now...