We should have Collaboration as well as competition in research. Citizens please join in!

Daniel Mietchen [one of the central figures in Open Science / Wikimedia] has just posted to the OKF Open-Science list


as briefly mentioned before, we are working on a public proposal to
make research proposals increasingly open:

The drafting period as part of that News Challenge ends on April 17,
and feedback of any kind is most welcome, especially before then,
though we certainly envisage to develop the project further over time.

To discuss the topic of open research proposals with a broader group,
there will be a public hangout on Friday (April 11) at 7pm UTC:
https://plus.google.com/u/0/events/ce1t7snttl29082nmpa44joqsdc .
It would be nice to have some of you with us then!


Read the proposal and come to the hangout. Daniel’s proposal is excellently argued and makes the case that collaborative research can be more effective in many ways than competition. Tim Gowers ran a completely Open, collaborative maths research project (Polymath) which solved an important problem in a staggeringly short time. He said it was:  ”… to normal research as driving is to pushing a car.”

Of course scientists are competitive. Only a very few turn down Nobel Prizes or Fields Medals. And on the small number of occasions when others have taken my work and claimed it as their own I have been very angry. But secret grant applications have their downside. Most grant applications fail and so it’s a lot of wasted work if no-one builds on the ideas. It can lead to a metric oriented outcome where delivering lots of small pieces is more important than building for the future. (A similar problem: I find some computer science research very frustrating – they announce they have solved a problem without giving details or code or a solution the community can use. This makes it harder to justify repeating the work – and impossible to get any funding. )

We are now in the science data century. I guess that 50% of science effort is managing data. Data management in competitive projects is awful. It is short-term, and fouls up the future. I have been very fortunate to get EPSRC funding (thank you) for making our software distributable. Just as Wellcome justify publication as a central point of science, dissemination of code should also be high on the list.

There are many radical new things in the Digital Century. Just as Wikipedia has shown it is becoming the central scientific reference, we’re also seeing that collaborative science involving citizens can be highly productive. I’ve helped to set up the Blue Obelisk collaborative software project in chemistry which is the de facto for most Open Source and has also resulted in citation-rich publications (for those who care). The explicit total annual cost: about 20 USD – I buy 2 obelisks as prizes. Everything else is volunteer and marginal costs (bandwidth, servers, etc.).

Much research is parallelisable. In our own PLUTo project we need to build tools for machines to read the literature. We’ve got hundreds of journals to read and each requires a custom-written scraper. It takes an evening to write one. The conventional way is to hire someone and make them write hundreds of scrapers. The modern way is to appeal to the community. Maybe some people have already written some? Maybe there are citizens who love hacking? Either way everyone benefits – more people get involved, there’s a community. It’s science in the Digital Century. Join us

Some snippets from Daniel

Many ideas are lost in the current closed system, and so are opportunities to collaborate and improve those few that are actually being worked on. We propose to elaborate mechanisms that would allow a transition from the current secretive model to one in which sharing research ideas is the default and seen as an invitation for collaboration, for accelerating and improving research rather than as a breach of private property.

Back in 1959, psychologist Myron Brender wrote
“I propose the creation [..] of a newsletter or journal to be devoted exclusively to the publication of unexecuted research proposals.”

The main challenge of implementing this idea, however, is not technical but cultural: researchers currently have no incentive to share research proposals, and research funders have no habit of making their funding decisions public, nor who has applied for what.

Public research proposals would also open the door for science journalism to go new ways: instead of headlines of the “researchers found” kind once a research project has long finished, they could cover research projects from early on and highlight the process behind it.

Many have experienced this in the current system, but effective scooping is actually relatively simple now and much harder if your ideas are out there in the open: if everyone knows you were the first to propose (and actually pursue) that idea, anyone who tries to sell it as their own will risk loosing reputation, so they may actually prefer to work with rather than against you. More on that in the Harvard video embedded above.

computer scientist Ehud Shapiro recently wrote:
“Genuine interdisciplinary research is nothing like a competitive race. It is much more like a solitary exploratory hike through an uncharted landscape. […] There are no peers to compete with”. But there may be collaborators if they ask nicely.

[PMR Yes – I know this solitary hike…]

I’ll be at the hangout THIS FRIDAY! see you there