Sunday, July 27, 2008

Some backlash on Open Science

During ISMB, thanks to Shirley Wu (FF announcement), there was an improvised BoF (Birds of a Feather) session on web tools for scientists. Given that the meeting was not really announced we were not really expecting a full room. I would say that we had around 20 to 30 people that sayed at least for a while. We talked in general about tools that are useful in science (things like online reference managers, pre-print archives, community wikis, FriendFeed, Second Life) and we also talked a bit about the culture of sharing and open science.

Curiosly, the most interesting discussion I had about open science was not at this BoF session but after it. In the following day the subject come up again in a conversation between me and tree other people (two PhD students and a PI from a different lab). I will not identify the people because I don't know if they would like that or not. The most striking thing for me about this conversation was the somewhat instinctive negative reaction against open science from the part of the two PhD students. After a long discussion they made a few interesting arguments that I will mention below but what was strange for me was that this is the first time I see someone react instinctively in a negative way against the concepts of open science.

One of the students in particular was arguing that the fact that scientists sharing their results online (prior to peer review) is not only silly on their part (the scooping argument) but it would be detrimental to science as a whole. The most concrete argument he offered was that seeing someone "stake claim" to a research problem might scare other people away from even trying to solve it. I would say that it would be better to have people collaborating on the same research problems instead of the current scenario where a lot of scientists waste years (of their time and resources) working in parallel without even knowing about it. He argues simply that some people might not want to collaborate at all and should be allowed to work in this way. I don't think scientists should be forced to put their work online before peer-review, I just happen to think that this would improve collaborations and decrease the current waste or resources.

The second argument against sharing of research ideas and results prior to peer review was more consensual. They all mention the problem of noise and how it is already difficult to find relevant results in the peer reviewed literature. They suggest that this problem would be further increased if more people were to share their ideas and results online. I fully agree that this is a problem but not related at all with open science. This is a sorting/filtering problem that is already important today with the large increase in journals and published articles. We do need better recommendation and filtering tools but sharing ideas and results in blogs/wikis/online project management tools is not going to seriously increase the noise since these are all very easily separated from peer-reviewed articles. No-one is forced to track shared projects, but if they are available it would make it that much easier to start a collaboration when and if it makes sense to do so. Are open source repositories detrimental to the software industry ?

It took around 3 years since people started discussing the idea of open science and open notebooks for these concepts to get some attention. It is inevitable (and healthy) that as more people are exposed to a meme that more counter-arguments emerge. I guess that a backlash only means that the meme is spreading.