KM:Thoughts on "open" science
I should start by saying that I will be looking for a job soon, probably at a company where secrecy is required and, despite mission statements to the contrary, profit is the goal. However, I am hoping that I will be able to make some contributions within one of these companies that will help someone somewhere. Needless to say, putting these thoughts online is probably not my best career move. Additionally, my openwetware page is currently the top Google hit for my name. That said, here are some of my random thoughts on openness in the life sciences.
Recently, I have been involved in a number of conversations regarding open wetware. I think it is a great resource for individual labs to have a central organization system about meetings, lab resources, and “how to” information that is lab- or institution-specific. It is a good repository for experimental protocols and allows them to be an evolvable resource in which everyone can make modifications and offer advice. As a more general resource, it gives others access to the expertise around them, and may lower barriers to seeking out information from others. To me, these all seem like good things. However many people seem to be skeptical of open wetware and similar resources. They are concerned that people outside of the lab will be able to edit their material. They are concerned about sharing this type of information with the world on the web. My thoughts are that people who have editing capabilities have enough to worry about with editing their own content that they won’t have time to worry about editing yours. Additionally, the fact that people want to participate in this typically means that they want to use the resource. Being destructive doesn’t fit with generating a useful resource. As for “outsiders” reading the content, do you really care if someone knows it’s your turn to bring food for group meeting? Also, protocols will be included when you publish your work, often in abbreviated form. Is it a problem that others are able to access detailed protocols and use them in service of their own work?
So, why are people so skeptical? Paranoia seems to be an inherent part of modern science. We are paranoid about other labs “scooping” us on our work, about sharing too much information that may allow this to happen. Sometimes, there is even paranoia within a lab, as two projects start to collide or it seems like someone else is doing experiments that impede on your “territory.” I was advised by a friend once to “piss on my tree.” In other words, to be sure I mark my territory so someone else doesn’t start working on it. I took his advice. I also found myself asking another friend not to discuss my work with someone who I thought might be my competitor. In retrospect, all of this seems kind of ridiculous. Why am I, and so many others, so paranoid about sharing information? Isn’t the point of science to try to get to the “truth” by whatever means possible? Won’t we get there more quickly if we share information?
So, why are so many scientists secretive about their ongoing work? In my mind, one answer to this question lies in the merit structure in place in the scientific community. In order to succeed, it is important to do something creative and innovative, and to do it first. Paradoxically, in order to get funding for most projects, you have to demonstrate that what you are doing is feasible, and this is most easily done by proposing small steps that build upon the body of knowledge we already have. Many of these small steps are obvious, so numerous groups propose them. The result is lots of people working on the same thing, knowing that they have to be the first ones to make the important scientific finding. This leads to secrecy for fear that revealing too much will give a competitor a leg up. After all, he who gets there first is the one that will get the “better” publication and will be more likely to get continued funding, and the cycle continues. With scientific funding on the decline, this problem is likely to increase.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) funds much of the academic research going on in the US. Check out NIH’s mission statement. I am definitely happy that we have an agency like NIH to fund research. Many countries have little or no government funding for research. That said, I think that the way NIH and other government agencies decide to fund research largely influences how science is done in this country. Interestingly, part of NIH’s mission is to foster “exchange of information in medicine and health”. In fact, NIH has started to require its grantees to deposit their manuscripts in an “open source” database. However, funding decisions are influenced by publication records, which is influenced by publishing things first, and by the “feasibility” of proposed experiments, which is often determined by precedence. This means that it is more difficult to get funding for experiments that are radically different from those that have already been done, so “baby steps” are rewarded. “Baby steps” are often easy to figure out based on current research, so many people propose them, many people get funded for them, many people are working on the same thing, these people need to publish to get continued funding, publishing first is best, sharing information may jeopardize publishing first, secrecy ensues, “baby steps” are made, science goes on. A friend if mine told me one day that if he dropped off of the face of the earth today, he was sure that someone else would come along and do all of the research he had done. He was probably right. In fact, someone else is probably working on it right now. Is this really the best way to advance scientific knowledge?
I don’t know how to solve these, and other, issues in science, but its clear that something needs to be done. Maybe openness is the way to go. Fostering free exchange of ideas and information could put us on the road to bigger advances in science. However, we need to figure out a way to revamp the merit system. A friend of mine has often expressed the fact that there is largely one currency in this business, publications. Your publication record largely determines whether or not you get a job or funding. There are those rare people who seem to be able to rise above this currency. I refer to them as the “anointed” ones, but they are few and far between. For the rest of us “regular” folks, we need to figure out a way to advance science in the most productive way without also jeopardizing our future in science.