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Publicly funded science should be open science (wsj.com)
181 points by michael_nielsen on Oct 29, 2011 | hide | past | web | favorite | 19 comments

I was hoping that this article would restrain itself to arguing for open, publicly-readable journals. Baby steps, folks. Gotta walk before you run and all that.

Mandating open journals is practical. Convincing the current community of, say, biologists to share their raw data is not. I don't think molecular biologists would literally poison each other rather than divulge their sequence data prior to its publication in a major journal, but they'd consider it. The system of funding and promotion is going to have to undergo a very big shift before this dream comes to life. (Although I suspect it will come to life, eventually.)

Biggest factor left out: laziness.

I have no philosophical objection to sharing all my raw data just on the offchance somebody wants to look through terabytes of wavefunction data. But it'd take time and effort to organise it all. It's enough trouble for me just to get the relevant and important bits ready for publication, I don't want to sort through all my raw data as well.

Lazyness because there is no incentive. Again, the open source analogy comes handy: I usually write hugely embarrassing code for my projects, but if i had to open source it, not only would i write better, i might actually discover errors hitherto undetected. Equivalently, people would triple-check their data to avoid being embarrassed. That would also signal a shift from the "publish or perish" madness to "just publish good", which is huge.

This factor is not left out, it's at the core of the article:

"Even if you personally think it would be far better for science as a whole if you carefully curated and shared your data online, that is time away from your "real" work of writing papers. Except in a few fields, sharing data is not something your peers will give you credit for doing."

There is no question that in most (not all) fields it is not yet in an individual scientist's best interest to spend a lot of time systematically sharing data. The question is: might it sometimes be in the community's best interest?

This argument played out, for example, with the human genome in the 1990s, where many scientists were initially reluctant to share data (little individual reward for the time and effort). Ultimately, grant agencies required very early-stage sharing, something almost everyone would agree has benefited science as a whole.

The point of the article is that there needs to be a change to bring individual incentives for this kind of systematic sharing into alignment with the community's best interest.

That's what grad students are for.

The open access to publication argument already has nearly unstoppable momentum. In 2008 the NIH --- by far the world's largest funding agency, with a $30+ billion dollar a year budget --- adopted a policy requiring that all NIH-funded research be made openly accessible within 12 months of publication. See, e.g.: http://www.earlham.edu/~peters/fos/nihfaq.htm

Similar policies have been enacted by all 7 of the Research Councils in the UK. And there are many more such policies in place at institutions all over the world, including Harvard, MIT, Princeton, and many others.

A treasure trove of information about open access is Peter Suber's website. See, for example, his timeline: http://www.earlham.edu/~peters/fos/timeline.htm

The timeline stops in 2008 (he changed jobs), but if you look at progress up to that point, it's clear that this has enormous and rapidly increasing buy-in at grant agencies, libraries (who are the main "customer" for journals, in that they pay) and major universities. It will be very difficult for other parties to stop this change, provided people continue to work for it.

At this point, momentum is starting to build for more open data, and also for other kinds of systematic online sharing of research information. Why not give researchers an incentive to (say) upload online videos showing how certain lab experiments are done? At least in some labs there's stuff that's very difficult to describe in a paper, but easy to show in a video. And so this would be very valuable. (There are initiatives underway to do this, e.g.: http://www.jove.com/ )

I entirely agree with your final point - "The system of funding and promotion is going to have to undergo a very big shift before this dream comes to life". There's enough traction now within universities to start to have this discussion. Certainly, some senior scientists are dismissive; but many are extremely interested, and engaged.

Maybe it won't change at all in the end. The situation is not much different than, say, commercial software: You don't expect paid programmers to release their code in the open as long as they can take advantage of it for making money, but when that stops, they do. Similarly, researchers will use it for funding, promotions, prestige etc. However, the problem with academics is that even "archived" science remains closed, not just the papers, but also the raw data. So it would be a big step forward regardless. We need a worldwide repository for scientific exchange. The web is ready with open arms, but researchers are not.

OP posted this article with a title emphasizing Publicly funded science. There is no excuse for not sharing data acquired with the help of public funds.

The point isn't whether there's an excuse or not. It's just that in practice it is better tactics to try for just open journals first. This isn't a moral argument, it's a pragmatic one.

I thought the main issue of the article was that scientists don't bother making the raw data accessible, not just where they publish their papers.

This would be very difficult in biology. Any single experiment isn't evidence of much, and once I do get a notion that I am on to something, if I slap that up on the web, I'll probably get beaten to the punch by someone that has more resources and/or is better positioned. It would also be tough to argue that my early experiment was critical or even necessary to get there. So I would do a lot of work, and gift it to someone else. Of course, I know that this is the point, but it's problem enough that grants are basically over-hyped sales pitches. Good science is methodical and rigorous. Until funding is less results-based, you need to show big results. It's crazy to think that it's enough to fund promising evidence. Promising evidence is even more subjective. More hyperbole is not what we need.

We need to fund the process first. Then people, then results.

If you want to change a system, understand its motivations.

The article supplies a half-truth in this regard:

"If you're a scientist applying for a job or a grant, the biggest factor determining your success will be your record of scientific publications."

That's true, but the larger story is "IP"

A friend of mine has spent the past 8 years barely scraping by earning a PhD in Chemistry and working as a post-doc.

His motivation for the investment of time and energy is entrepreneurial: he plans to start a business using his discoveries.

Protecting his business interests means patents, means a closed system, means secrecy until it comes time to publish and he can be assured prior art status.

Beyond that an enormous part of Universities funding comes from IP royalties.

"Protecting his business interests"

Who funds his research? If he is funding it out of his own pocket then yes, I think it would be fair for him to have some joint ownership of the IP. However, if it was funded by someone else (e.g. the public) then my view is that everyone who contributed to funding that research should have the ability to access and use the results.

It is not really clear-cut. Typically a graduate student in the US does many things (from teaching to building a lab's basic equipment), and gets paid very little. I would not have a problem if a grad student claims that she did enough work for the money she is paid and her "discoveries" are the outcome of things she has done in her spare time. She is expected to publish of course, but there is already a remedy for not publishing: You cannot get a job in academia, and your advisor will not get further funding.

The funding provides the raw materials and the equipment in addition to the grad students' salary, so it is not unreasonable for the funding agency to require some open access to the outcome of the project. But this has to be said in advance, so people can decide whether to live on a low salary for many years while doing highly qualified work. If you want full access to my findings, so I would not be accumulating intellectual capital during my grad student years, then I would like a decent salary.

>>if it was funded by someone else (e.g. the public) then my view is that everyone who contributed to funding that research should have the ability to access and use the results.

If you show those results to "the public", they'll likely want their money back. I know I do.

That is pretty much the center of the debate: since that funding comes like an investment for research (think angel funds), shouldn't a greater of such return be given back as intellectual products?

I really don't know if the current return of those IP portfolios are enough to offset the money required to be poured in to the research community. Given that every government on the earth still need to subsidy many researches, it is pretty likely that the system are simply losing money.

We all know the incentive/motivation part of psychology, that if researchers get nothing in return (justifiable salaries or IP rights) they won't work as hard to solve the problems. The point of balance, given the current status of capitalism is really hard to redefine.

We always hear companies started by members from previously government/university funded projects. The public should be more informed for the process of how that company would pay back the researching funding the research projects have spent on, and the risk inferred for sponsoring any researches.

Sounds like VCs, but that's how it should go.

True story: I grabbed the URL and started to email Michael Nielsen.

Nice work, dude. :)

He is an HN regular too, i think ; certainly the most esteemed scientist i 've seen in here.

I wrote about something similar here:


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