Doing science in the open---thoughts from Michael Nielsen

Yesterday I attended a workshop led by Michael Nielsen on the topic of open science. Nielsen is a theoretical physicist who co-authored the standard text on quantum computation (the most-cited physics publication in the last 25 years). Nielsen has since shifted focus toward the future of how scientific discoveries are made, which was the topic of this lecture. The primary question of his talk:

Can open source principles be applied to solve scientific problems?

Nielsen covered a number interesting topics in the open science movement ranging from the Polymath Project to the Bermuda Principles. For a great distillation of the material, you can check out Nielsen’s essay The Future of Science, his book Reinventing Discovery: The New Era of Networked Science, or his talk at TEDxWaterloo from earlier this year:

Here are the things I left the workshop thinking about:

  • Scientists have a moral responsibility to do everything possible to speed up discovery and progress. Think in terms of the greater good, not your career.
  • Open tools (blogging, wikis, etc.) allow for a “restructuring of expert attention” that can “amplify the collective intelligence” of the scientific community. Latent expertise within the community can be leveraged in more valuable ways by connecting interested people to important problems. I loved the notion of “latent” expertise.
  • Diverse networks provided an infrastructure for amateur/enthusiast scientists (high school teachers, undergrads, administrative staff) to provide valuable contributions to the discussion. Example:
  • Even half-baked ideas submitted in the Polymath Project were helpful as they were often rapidly developed into greater sophistication. A domino effect would occur where a lay scientist might suggest an idea which a more serious mathematician could run with.
  • There is so much momentum behind the movement for open access that its universal adoption is merely a matter of time.
  • New measures are needed to incentivize (especially younger) researchers to adopt openness. Some examples here include policy such as the Bermuda principles, the enlightenment of tenure committees, and the recent inclusion of some blog posts in Google Scholar.
  • New means are needed to measure scientific contributions disseminated via non-standard mediums (such as wikis and blogs).
  • Do you view blogging as part of your job? Terry Tao and Timothy Gowers do—both are Fields Medalists.
  • I really like the brand/phrase: “doing science in the open”

I got the chance to chat with Michael afterwards. I asked if he could elaborate on best practices for graduate students wishing to launch careers consistent with open science ideals. My takeaways from our chat:

  • Even if your field is extremely narrow and few are currently embracing open principles, there are people who can benefit from your data and insights.
  • Develop your blog and encourage grad student friends to engage and start their own.
  • Group efforts are easier than going it alone.
  • Find the few people worldwide interested in networking around your niche and strengthen your ties with them.
  • Do what you have to do to keep your job, but as much as possible, share papers, code, data, and ideas.

Overall the lecture was just as fascinating as I’d hoped. I love working at a university that attracts such events and can’t believe more people don’t attend these sorts of things.

What do you think are the most important questions or points about science in the open?

UPDATE (2011-10-10): Michael Nielsen’s book on this broad topic just came out. Reinventing Discovery: The New Era of Networked Science (affiliate link)

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