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Print scientific journals are becoming less relevant in the Internet Age. Arxiv, a Web site where physicists post their research papers before they are published in print, has grown to contain more than 430,000 articles as of July 2007.
By Senior Editor
updated 9/2/2008 4:00:11 PM ET 2008-09-02T20:00:11

Secrecy and competition to achieve breakthroughs have been part of scientific culture for centuries, but the latest Internet advances are forcing a tortured openness throughout the halls of science and raising questions about how research will be done in the future.

The openness at the technological and cultural heart of the Internetis fast becoming an irreplaceable tool for many scientists, especially biologists, chemists and physicists — allowing them to forgo the long wait to publish in a print journal and instead to blog about early findings and even post their data and lab notes online. The result: Science is moving way faster and more people are part of the dialogue.

But no one agrees yet on whether this extreme sharing among scientists and even the public is ultimately good for science or undermining it.

"It scares people," says biochemist Cameron Neylon, an open science advocate who works at Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in England and posts all his experiments in an online "open notebook."

"People are very frightened about being that open," Neylon told LiveScience. "This is not really the way current academic culture is built and we are trying to change it. So that makes some people uncomfortable."

Open science

The open science approach forces researchers to grapple with the question of whether they can still get sufficient credit for their ideas, said physicist Sabine Hossenfelder, co-organizer of a conference on the topic set to begin Sept. 8 at the Perimeter Institute in Ontario, Canada.

"In some areas, credit is mainly appreciation by peers (think mathematics and theoretical physics)," she said. "In other areas, money is a factor. That might be through patents or simply because some ideas can be used to make money directly. Consider if you would have a great model to predict the quirks of the world's economy — would you go and publish it?"

Open science is a shorthand for technological tools, many of which are Web-based, that help scientists communicate about their findings. At its most radical, the ethos could be described as "no insider information." Information available to researchers, as far as possible, is made available to absolutely everyone.

Beyond e-mail, teleconferencing and search engines, there are many examples:

  • Blogs where scientists can correspond casually about their work long before it is published in a journal; social networks that are scientist friendly such as Laboratree and Ologeez
  • GoogleDocs and wikis which make it easy for people to collaborate via the Web on single documents; a site called Connotea that allows scientists to share bookmarks for research papers
  • Sites such as Arxiv, where physicists post their "pre-print" research papers before they are published in a print journal
  • OpenWetWare which allows scientists to post and share new innovations in lab techniques
  • The Journal of Visualized Experiments, an open-access site where you can see videos of how research teams do their work; GenBank, an online searchable database for DNA sequences
  • Science Commons, a non-profit project at MIT to make research more efficient via the Web, such as enabling easy online ordering of lab materials referenced in journal articles;
  • Online open-access (and free) journals like Public Library of Science
  • Open-source software that can often be downloaded free off Web sites

The upshot: Science is no longer under lock and key, trickling out as it used to at the discretion of laconic professors and tense PR offices. For some scientists, secrets no longer serve them. But not everyone agrees.

Just a few decades ago, as a scientist, here is how you did your work: You toiled in obscurity and relative solitude.

It could take years to generate results, and scientists tended to guard their data and findings prior to publication in a journal, possibly giving out only minimal details on what exactly they were researching.

Results became legitimate and credit was given to scientists once their results were published as a paper in a "peer-reviewed" journal — one for which the work is evaluated by experts in the field as acceptable or unacceptable for print. Often papers were sent back for rewrites or clarification, and publication can occur months after submission. This system still is in place for many scientists.

However, today, more and more scientists, as well as researchers in the humanities, operate like transparent, networked cyborgs.

Background research is mostly done online, not in the library. Some data and preliminary research might be posted online via a blog or open notebook. Early write-ups of the work might be announced to the public, or at least discussed online with peers. And these early write-ups might also be posted to an online publication that is not peer-reviewed in the strict sense.

With supercomputers and sequencers processing data at warp speed, along with online Web tools for analyzing data and posting early results, the pace of research, from lab bench to established finding, has accelerated (and the public tends to learn about findings faster).

"In areas like my own subfields of theoretical physics," said MIT physicist David Kaiser, "the only constraint [on how rapidly one generates research papers] is, 'Did you have more coffee that day?' We aren't usually held up trying to get an instrument to work, or slogging through complicated data analysis."

Most people think faster is better, but there are other issues.

Is it a good thing?
There is "no question" that all efforts to make science more open are positive for the progress of science, says open science proponent and chemist Jean-Claude Bradley at Drexel University in Philadelphia, who posts his lab notebook online and started a blog in 2005 called UsefulChemistry where he and his colleagues regularly discuss chemistry problems as well as Web 2.0 tools and the technical and philosophical issues they raise.

His online notebook and blog definitely make it easier to communicate with colleagues, he said. Such sharing also makes it easier for others to "replicate" scientists' work — try it themselves and convince themselves that you are right. And this replication issue is one of the principles behind scientific research. Anyone who has written down a recipe for a friend knows that we all tend to spell things out more clearly when sharing them than we would if we were just taking notes for ourselves in our own shorthand.

Open science also has the potential to prevent discrimination in access to information. Arxiv, the site for posting pre-print physics papers, was started in 1991 by Cornell physicist Paul Ginsparg, then at Los Alamos National Laboratory, to help provide equal access to prepublication information to graduate students, postdocs and researchers in developing countries.

And Neylon, the biochemist from England, said: "One of the things that is really clear about making this available is that the person whose access you are really enabling is your own." Wherever he is worldwide, if he can sit at a personal computer with Internet access, he can pull up his notebook.

And open science benefits the public, Bradley said. He tries to keep his posts fairly accessible (although this is not the case for all open notebooks and open science blogs).

"There is a lot of potential for the public to understand how science actually progresses — it is messy and painstaking, and most experiments either fail or provide ambiguous results," Bradley said. "On the blog, I try to report our progress in a way that other scientists, but also to a large extent the public, should be able to understand."

Also, open notebooks could yield important contributions from non-scientists or experts in other fields, Neylon said.

"It's not clear to me that professional scientists or people in academic institutions have a monopoly on good ideas," he said. "There are very smart people outside of academia, for example hobbyists or people in industry who could contribute, and having more contributors can only help. The same applies to interdisciplinary and cross-disciplinary approaches."

So far, there are only a handful of scientists who post their complete notebooks online, but dozens of others post some, but not all, of their notebook pages. Perhaps this is due to the dreaded scoop.

Drawbacks of open science
One of the biggest fears of nearly all researchers is that someone else hears what you're doing and beats you to publication. That means you wasted a lot of time (and most researchers work extremely long hours, so loss of productivity is especially painful and can also harm one's chances for getting a jobor promotion or funding for the next research project). Once you publicly reveal your thoughts, data or experimental results, some say, you lose control over ownership of that information. This topic is covered by an area of law called intellectual property, as well as patent law, and there can be significant money to be fought over when it comes to patents.

Hossenfelder, the conference organizer, says she knows of several examples in which scientists have had an idea for something, talked about it openly and then somebody else has published the fleshed-out idea first without giving any credit beyond an acknowledgment to the original idea-holder. Acknowledgments don't advance careers.

However there are solutions to this, she said. For instance, the prominent scientific journal Nature encourages authors to include brief summaries of which author contributed what to a project.

Some say that online posts provide a time-stamped record of when an experiment was documented. Those stamps can easily be arbitrarily altered after the fact, but it might also be possible to "lock" posts at a certain date after which they could not be changed without some sign-off permission to break the lock, Hossenfelder said.

Neylon says the total scientific openness is freeing on a personal level:

"In the biological sciences you spend a lot of time worrying, 'Is someone going to beat me to this? Am I going to get scooped? How are we going to get this grant?' — all things that lead you to being scared to talk to people about what you're doing. I have found a lot of that dropping away. So one of the main personal benefits of simply making everything available is that you know it's available, so you stop worrying about it (who can see it). Not having that worry, 'Am I giving the game away?' is actually a tremendous relief."

Fear of losing peer review
Another drawback of open science can be that results go public before they should. In science, experimental results are frequently proven wrong by subsequent work. Yet even peer review cannot ensure against this, nor can it prevent outright fraud, as proven by a 2005 caseinvolving a South Korean scientist who claimed to have achieved the first cloning of a human embryo. A later examination of his work showed he had fabricated his results.

"Like in the case of scientific fraud, if you talk to people in biomedicine, they are really concerned about peer review because it is one of the few ways they have to stop fraud. In fact most fraud cases come from biomedicine," said Harvard University historian of science Mario Biagioli.

Peer review started in the 17th century as a variation of the censorship practices attached to books and newssheets publishing, Biagioli has written. Nowadays, many fields of science and communicators of it (including journalists) rely on peer review as a generic stamp of approval.

"The social system of science has become so complicated, unregulated and dispersed in terms of geography and disciplines, so peer review has been elevated to a principle that unifies a fragmented field," Biagioli said.

Trends in the strength of peer review tend to zig and zag throughout history, and even today, says MIT's Kaiser, who also is an historian of science. The premier physics journal Physical Review only started requiring peer review for every submission in the late 1950s, he said.

And today, Arxiv, one of the most frequently cited examples of open science, has no peer review for individual papers, but it has begun to add in some constraints on allowable authors. The site used to allow anyone with email addresses associated with academic institutions to post their papers. Now, authors of research papers who post in Arxiv are vetted before they can post for the first time. In some ways, things are tightening up when it comes to openness in physics, Kaiser said. In any case, the function of print journals, in physics at least, is changing.

"Ease of sharing everything prior to peer review is flourishing, and in my opinion very few physicistsare reading journals for information these days," Kaiser said. "Journals have largely lost their information function."

Now they are used for promotions and prestige in physics — for helping to build careers but not necessarily for getting ideas into circulation. "Now we can give away most of our physics results for free," Kaiser said. "No one is going to care if I post some obscure model of cosmology on this Web site."

But that is just physics. In biomedicine today, he said, the terrain is totally different, primarily because of complex intellectual property considerations and potential conflicts of interest among researchers funded by drug companies, as well as concerns over patient safety and privacy.

For the good of truth, humanity, economies?
Another argument in favor of open science is sort of a big picture issue for humanity, scientific truthand economies, Neylon said.

"Making things more open leads to more innovation and more economic activity, and so the technology that underlies the Web makes it possible to share in a way that was never really possible before, while at same time it also means that kinds of models and results generated are much more rich," he said.

This is the open source approach to software development, as opposed to commercial closed source approaches, Neylon said. The internals are protected by developers and lawyers, but the platform is available for the public to build on in very creative ways.

"Science was always about mashing up, taking one result and applying it to your [work] in a different way," Neylon said. "The question is 'Can we make that as effective as samples data and analysis as it does for a map and set of addresses for a coffee shop?' That is the vision."

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