Open Science on Quora: Why Are We Not There, Yet?

In his Reinventing Discovery: The New Era of Networked Science, Nielsen argues that networked digital tools, such as discussion boards and online marketplaces, can make it easier for scientists to pool their data, share methodologies, and find collaborators, and actually, that we are living at the dawn of the most dramatic change in science in more than 300 years. Everyone’s incentive to share, even that of non-scientists, will add up to future public policies that still need to catch up with technological change.

“Universities are not standing in the way except through inertia,” Nielsen answers for the Boston Review. “As a scientist, you build your career by publishing papers, basically. If you’re spending a lot of time doing that, it’s hard to make time to, say, share your ideas online or to share computer code online or any of the other things you might potentially be doing, even though those things have tremendous scientific value. So, in some sense, the entrenched system of reward that universities use is standing in the way of open science, but it’s not because of anything malicious on anybody’s part. It’s just that we have this established system, and it’s very difficult to get everybody to change at the same time.”

Tracking how scientists discuss this change in doing research and how they behave may guide us to practicing open science – now. At Quora’s “Open Science” questions and answers section, a pattern exists of this conversation between academia members. There is a need in the scientific community to develop a lively, ongoing conversation about the value of the new technologies so we can finally embrace them.

Plug and Play

Just around 20 questions on Quora are described as either best or ongoing, in the “Open Science” field. The most straightforward one is about the reason for scientists not conducting open science now: “Peer review and publishing still follows a model established in the 50s, at a time when mass print and distribution was the most efficient way to screen for quality and disseminate knowledge. Social networks, cloud platforms, and open-source technologies are reshaping the ways in which we communicate, make decisions, and mobilize action. Scientific progress stands to gain an unprecedented leap with today’s opportunities.” The author of this question suggests and regards as possible “an open-sourced plug-and-play platform that’s self-maintained by decentralized communities formed around shared pursuits (e.g. research groups, universities, etc.).” So, “what are the barriers for transitioning to such a system,” the author continues. “Big publishers have no legal hold on receiving research papers, neither do scientists have obligations to publish with journals. Why can’t scientists take scientific peer-review and publishing into their own hands?” None answered so far.

“Is it true that the new “Einsteins” will be the scientists who share,” scientists at Quora wonder and refer to Michael Nielsen who used Polymath to describe one such successful project, but sadly, “ventures such as the Polymath Project remain the exception, not the rule. These projects (like Polymath),” Nielsen explains, “use online tools as cognitive tools to amplify our collective intelligence. The tools are a way of connecting the right people to the right problems at the right time, activating what would otherwise be latent expertise.” Still, obstacles to such progress are visible, with many questions centered around “the value added” by traditional methods, the repeated focus on the published paper, peer review, which in one answer, provided by Cameron Neylon, could be made, in a networked era, into an “ongoing review”, and publication could be made into a “rapid publication”. Nielsen will confirm that “networked science has the potential to speed up dramatically the rate of discovery across all of science.”

What are the common reasons, then, that scientists give for not practicing open science, how they explain internet influence on peer review, are scientists more willing to share date in some fields than in other fields? All these questions remain partially answered or open on Quora. “Though you might think that scientists would aggressively adopt new tools for discovery, they have been surprisingly inhibited,” Nielsen argues. “Even if scientists believe in the value of contributing, they know that writing a single mediocre paper will do far more for their careers. The incentives are all wrong.

An ongoing peer review, is, as answered by Cameron Neylon on Quora, “clearly technically feasible and, (in his view) a better way to manage research information than what we do at the moment. But at the moment there are strong cultural problems with evolving in this direction.” Dobbs writes in his article for The Wired: “Open-science advocates say the repetitional focus on the published paper ignores many other ways scientists contribute, such as evaluating or testing other research, talking with the public, curating databases, and so on. Thus, many open-science advocates are seeking to create tools to track these other contributions.” Finally, Neylon defines open research as “the movement or community of people who advocate greater, more rapid, and more public access to the details of the research process.” This is also the best answer to what exactly is Open Science, on Quora. But, how to get there?

The Desire to Surprise

One of the most attention seeking answers was the one listing the “desire to surprise” as one of the reasons why scientists should not make their research data available, and this even included a comment about not enough online space available and no demand for open data at this point. “Scientists do not want to deal with maintaining data forever,” the discussion is finally resolved. This bring us back to Michael Nielsen who claims that to reinvent discovery, “we must first choose to create a scientific culture that embraces the open sharing of knowledge.” If the incentives to contribute to science are all wrong, the incentives to contribute to discussion about open science are – completely missing.

Still, scientists wonder what would happen to science, if, for example, Elsevier went down? Dobbs writes that “a key will be the construction of a replacement model for the traditional academic publishing system that so frustrates open-science advocates. Publication is both the simplest and hardest nut to crack,” he continues, ” – as with blogging, it’s easy enough to just get the stuff out there. The challenge is how to make it findable. (His) guess is that models like PLoSOne and F1000 — places associated with large organizations — will become the main outlet for non-pre-peer-reviewed publications. In any case, (in his view) this is a need fairly easily met, and these efforts can pretty soundly replace the dissemination function of the traditional publishing machinery.”

Finally, what is seen among Quora users as a reason to practice open science is – “because we can’t afford to conduct closed science. Retractions are on the rise,” one author suggests, “because research is now motivated by political, financial, and personal (tenure, prestige, etc.) gain. People are no longer doing research for academic curiosity, or for the overall gain in knowledge, but for their own self interest.” Another reason is “the current academic and university system. Tenured positions are highly competitive and scarce. A scientist will never get tenure without published work.” A logical sequel to continuing quest on Quora for crowd-funded platforms, online tools that should facilitate research, reducing high cost of scientific journals, texts from open science blogs and manifestos – should be a much more energetic and creative debate on data curation, maintaining, and advocating public access to research data. It could be on Quora or somewhere else, and there could be 80 questions instead of 20, one question for each 100 scientists who signed the boycotting petition against Elsevier.

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One Response to Open Science on Quora: Why Are We Not There, Yet?

  1. As (motioned to) it is amazing the variety of platforms that are available, for free, and the complexity of them. The posibilities of learning and the access of open information is mind boggling, “open science on social platforms” (that didn’t exist 15 years ago!). This is encouraging to new generations and people eager to further their knowledge! To anybody with an internet connection; you have no excuse to not be learning new things. Quora is one of the portals at the forefront to do this. They are doing a great job and seem to be leading the field – for now. As for Michael Nielsen – hats off to him for his work in the field both as a writer and a scientis, great to see that he is on Quora!

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