Yesterday I gave the final departmental astrolunch of the semester, which reviewed Michael Neilsen’s excellent Physics World article ‘Doing Science in the Open’. You can read the full article via this link.
Neilsen describes the current situation, in which scientists must publish refereed papers in selective journals in order to progress science. In fact publishing has become a part of the scientific process, and has been for almost 300 years. The history of this situation is explored in the article, so I will not go into it here.
The Internet represents an opportunity to change this system, one which has created a 300-year-old, collective long-term memory, into something new and more efficient, perhaps adding in a current, collective short-term working memory at the same time. With new online tools, scientists could begin to share techniques, data and ideas online to the benefit of all parties, and the public at large.
Online tools for commenting, sharing and distributing information are now established but many scientists remain reticent to put their ideas – their hard work – into this free-for-all. Fear of wasted time, intellectual property theft and reprisals from the community have made scientists stay behind their desk, filling up their hard drives and filing cabinets, rather than share en-masse.
I probably don’t need to explain to someone reading a blog that online tools are changing many other aspects of society. During my astrolunch talk I presented a slide showing some of the online tools I have used in the past year to benefit my own work. (I realised when writing the talk that there were too many to fit on one slide!)
In the end, Neilsen’s article concludes that for scientists to engage and share ideas online, and thus become more efficient in their work, they would need to do so in a very different online infrastructure to that which we usually see in so-called Web 2.0. Scientists would need a way to track any one person’s activity within this infrastructure so that proper credit and attribution could be given to the origin of ideas. This, along with some metric of contribution would be vital for scientists to consider putting time and effort into any online activity regarding their work.
At present only your refereed publications count toward anything in your future as a scientist. Without publication, you likely won’t won’t progress in research and likely won’t advance in your career. If you spend time online; writing, sharing and contributing, then it will not help you in your academic life. This is a situation that has to change, and that almost inevitably will change in the coming years.
Neilsen thinks that the system will be transformed in the next couple of decades, far more than it has been in 300 years! This will involve a huge shift in the culture of scientists. However with the proper tools and the right amount of ‘evangelizing’ by techy science types, it could all happen more easily.
The talk generated a lot of discussion, and in fact still is via email. People seemed to think I was advocating the abolishment of the current system or suggesting everyone put every idea they’ve ever had onto Facebook. I am not. What I do know is that there are a huge number of small tips, tools, scripts, techniques, spreadsheets, templates and other bits and bobs lying on every academic’s hard drive in every university in the world! If those little pieces of knowledge were searchable, filterable and accessible to everyone else in the field then it might be easier for people to progress in their work and find the right people to collaborate with on the right jobs.
Michael Neilsen is an invited speaker for the .Astronomy 2009 conference in Leiden this winter. For more information on that conference visit the new website www.dotastronomy.com. You can also find Neilsen’s blog at michaelnielsen.org/blog/.