Publishable science

Open science:
[Via Michael Nielsen]

The invention of the scientific journal in the 17th and 18th centuries helped create an institution that incentivizes scientists to share their knowledge with the entire world. But scientific journals were a child of the paper-and-ink media of their time. Scientific papers represent only a tiny fraction of the useful knowledge that scientists have to share with the world:

Enabled by a new media form, the internet, the last few years have seen a modest expansion in the range of knowledge that can be published and recognized by the scientific community:

The most obvious examples of this expansion are things like video and data.
However, there are many other types of useful knowledge that scientists have, and could potentially share with the world. Examples include questions, ideas, leads, folklore knowledge, notebooks, opinions of other work, workflows, simple explanations of basic concepts, and so on.
Each of these types of knowledge can be the basis for new online tools that further expand the range of what can be published by scientists:

It’s fun to think about what tools would best serve the needs associated with each type of knowledge. This is already starting to happen with tools and ideas like open notebook science, the science exchange, SciRate, and the Open Wetware wiki.

This is a very good point to make. Publishable information has increased tremendously. We are no longer limited by what the printing press is capable of displaying. We are no longer limited by the number of pages that can be printed a month.

This opens up the possibility of also making available not only the things that went right but those that went wrong. Preventing others from following a dead end would be useful.

Underlying this apparent problem is an opportunity to develop tools to assist scientists in finding relevant information, and to ensure that what they publish – their questions, ideas, and so on – is seen by those people who will most benefit. Ideally, the result will be not only a great expansion in the range of what is published, but also a great improvement in the quality of information that we encounter.

The reason new tools will be developed is that this approach will allow researchers to attack very complex problems in a much more efficient manner than those limiting themselves to the printing press. Success will breed success.

There are, of course, major cultural barriers to acceptance of these new tools. At present, there are few incentives to make use of new ideas like open notebook science. Why blog your ideas online, when someone else could be working on a paper on the same subject? This isn’t speculation, it’s already happening, and sometimes the blog posts are better – but try telling that to a tenure review committee.

Similar comments were made with regarding Open Source. What incentive would there be for creating software for free? It may well be that Open Science is not rewarded in the same fashion as science on paper. I think it is more likely that academia will change to provide proper rewards.

Certainly there are other places to pursue research than a university. In particular, I think there will be an even larger growth in non-profit research institutions over the next generation. They do not usually have the same arcane tenure problems universities do, and often rewarding people more like a corporation does than academia, that is for what they accomplish the meets the institution’s goals rather than where they published.

The successful institutions will find and use the tools that solve problems. They will also find ways to reward those that successfully use them

At the moment, many of these institutions are found in biotech and human health but as more money and focus moves towards using innovative tools to promulgate science, there will be ones for every discipline. And, as the brain drain from academia to these institutions increases, universities will either have to adapt or they will wither.

More flexibility, More collaborative environments. Less overhead. I believe that these research foundations will be the leaders in promulgating open science. It is to their advantage to do so.

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2 thoughts on “Publishable science”

  1. I think it’s important to distinguish between “knowledge” and “information”. As Tom Waits recently said, “We are buried beneath the weight of information, which is being confused with knowledge; quantity is being confused with abundance. ”

  2. Absolutely. I tend to follow Ackoff’s DIKW scheme, adding my own twist, with Nonaka and Takeuch’s tacit-explicit cycle thrown in.

    Data simply exists and requires human interaction to provide context and meaning, thus becoming information. This can be accomplished by a single person acting alone or by a community.

    This information can be tacit, held by the individual or explicit, made available to the community. It is through the conversion of tacit and explicit information that knowledge is created. Knowledge is the ability to make a decision, to find an answer. Its creation necessarily requires a social component. Knowledge can not be created in isolation.

    With knowledge, a decision can be made regarding how to collect new data, starting another cycle. Data to information to knowledge and back again.

    Wisdom is the ability to make the RIGHT decision, the one that finds not just an answer but a solution to a problem. Wisdom comes from the accumulation of knowledge, both good decisions and bad.

    This directly follows my experience as a researcher. The tacit-explicit cycle requires both individual and social interactions. Knowledge in science usually tells us what we don’t know and that answering a question only results in more questions. Eventually we crest this hill to create wisdom.

    The problem we have today occurs at each step. Too much data makes it hard to provide context and create information. The tacit-explicit cycle is hampered and knowledge is harder to create. Wisdom is almost impossible to attain.

    That is why I push Web 2.0 tools. They help the flow of data to information to knowledge by increasing the size of the social community that can be brought to bear, providing some needed lubricant to the whole system.

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