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Digital science, OpenWorm and the future of collaborative science

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Digital science, OpenWorm and the future of collaborative science

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I’ve written a few times over the past year about the immense value of opening up the scientific process.  Historically there has been a tendency to only publish studies that succeeded to whatever extent the researchers believed was valid.

Whilst that is great, it denies the scientific community the opportunity to learn from the failures and mistakes that don’t get published.

That’s slowly changing with the rise in things such as Open Notebook Science, which advocates documenting publicly research as it happens.

The following talk, by Stephen Larson, was given at a TEDx event and looks at the convergence of digital biology and open science in projects such as OpenWorm, which has attempted to create a digital organism in a completely open and transparent manner.

The project has attracted contributors from countries around the world and is a fascinating template for others to build on.

Of course, these kind of projects rest upon the willingness of the researchers themselves to share what they’re doing.  A recent study highlights how such willingness varies considerably between the various academic disciplines.

It revealed for instance, that whilst astronomers and geneticists tend to be good at sharing their work, ecologists are not in the same league at all.

The study found that whilst ecologists, obviously, share their work in journals, they seldom shared the data upon which their studies were built.

“One reason for not sharing data is the fear of being scooped by another scientist; but if all data are available, then everyone is on the same playing field, there are more people to collaborate with, and you will have a bigger impact on science,” the authors say.

“Think of the advances being made in genomics, for example, due to the human genome project and the free-flowing findings and data. Genomics is advancing at an unprecedented rate, and it’s having an impact on many other fields as well.”

The study suggests that whilst environmental scientists often have good intentions regarding sharing their work, most of the time things get stuck at that, with little carry through into actual sharing.

The virtue of sharing data is well known, and an often versed message on this blog.  Whether it’s the increased diversity it brings to the challenge or the enhanced learning from failures as well as successes, the benefits of opening up the research process are legion.

The challenge is to try and make such a culture of sharing the norm within the environmental sciences.

“We’ll still need to work through the best way to make this the norm,” the researchers say. “We’re not saying to share data as soon as it’s gathered, and we understand that there’s not a one-size-fits-all policy. Our hope is that scientists will change their practice because they are compelled by the argument that they are ethically obliged to, not because they are forced to share data.”

The researchers declare that they intend to study this issue further and explore how to ensure data is shared, and how the process can be incentivized at an institutional level.  There are few incentives offered by universities for instance, with the primary emphasis remaining on publication of papers.

Hopefully the environmental science field will take some lessons from other niches that have been more successful in opening up their own research process, and the sector can begin to improve its behaviors and cultures accordingly.

Projects such as OpenWorm should help to facilitate that shift in culture.  I hope you enjoy the talk.

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