OpenWetWare:PLoS community page

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Revision as of 08:53, 16 October 2007 by Reshma P. Shetty (talk | contribs)
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This is the Jason and Sri version. Needs box 1.

In the face of expensive publishing and distribution costs, scientists and publishers built the current peer-reviewed publication ecosystem to optimize the exchange of the most critical information among researchers: results. Communities were established that celebrated good results, peer-review processes were developed to evaluate results, and infrastructure was built to distribute journals of results to scientists around the world. The success of this system is reflected in the health of the scientific community today, however a significant flaw in the system is the amount of tacit knowledge and pre-publication research activities that remain unshared in any broad or timely way. For example, information regarding laboratory protocols, equipment operation, current research directions, etc., remains generally unavailable. The consequences of not sharing such information impinge on the pace of science, creating barriers of entry to researchers coming from different fields, reducing collaboration, and preventing the replication of results. OpenWetWare is an experiment to establish a new ecosystem (infrastructure, processes, and community) that fosters the sharing of this tacit knowledge and pre-publication materials within biology and biological engineering.

Infrastructure is a website based on the same wiki software that runs Wikipedia, and is our first attempt at providing the necessary infrastructure to capture and share tacit information between scientists. The wiki allows for instantaneous distribution of information with few constraints on the publication format. Simple, fast mechanisms for sharing information are essential if we expect scientists to share the many details underlying the research process. The flexible format has proven effective at accommodating the breath of information communicated by scientists (see box 1).


The existing processes for communicating results involve writing manuscripts, peer reviewing, and editorial decisions by journals to establish importance. We expect very different processes to support the exchange of information about the research process outside of the publication of results. Formal peer review will be less critical as information will be judged by its immediate usefulness and repeatability. It will be more important to provide mechanisms for providing feedback on published information than to provide peer review pre-publication. We are also attempting to embed information capture in the research process by supporting electronic lab notebooks and online protocol collections. Authors currently omit much of the information generated during research, such as alternative hypotheses, failed experiments, protocol details and raw data, simply because it wasn’t captured in a form that is amenable to easy distribution.


The peer-review system for distributing results is not based on infrastructure and processes alone – it rests on a foundation of career rewards that value results dissemination and general community norms of scholarship. Likewise, OpenWetWare’s success thus-far is not a result of the wiki alone, but of the various individual communities that encourage and support the exchange of tacit knowledge. We have helped foster the growth of these communities by encouraging global publication of local sharing. OpenWetWare members often publish information primarily for it to be viewed by members of their lab, however by sharing this information openly they often receive unintended benefits (feedback, recruitment, new collaborations, etc). To date there are few communities that value the dissemination of information about the research process itself, however the success of OpenWetWare suggests that we can grow new communities that celebrate the sharing of this information.

Today 3200 researchers representing over 100 laboratories around the world contribute to OpenWetWare in a variety of ways (see Box 1). Two salient features of contributions to OpenWetWare point to its uniqueness. First, the breadth of content on OWW highlight information sources that are not well represented anywhere else. For example, information on operating common laboratory equipment or the genotypes of common laboratory E. coli strians are often written down, but are rarely disseminated widely. Second, the depth of information sources on OWW is also unlike that found elsewhere. For example, there are several examples of detailed laboratory notebooks. [I think we can be more specific here; as in the AC/RS version].

Moving forward, many challenges remain. To what extent can we address competitive concerns of publishing information early, without undercutting the very idea of getting information in the open? Are their explicit reward structures that we can incorporate into such systems that will encourage the sharing of such tacit knowledge? Can we continue to take advantage of the software tools to make information contribution even easier? How do we ensure that researchers can quickly find the information that is relevant to them, particularly as we relax the filters provided by traditional peer-review publications?

The OpenWetWare Steering Committee, a volunteer group of OpenWetWare users, is charged with addressing such questions on the site. We invite you to join the OpenWetWare community and help us establish a new ecosystem for sharing knowledge in biology.


OpenWetWare's past and continued success is entirely due to the efforts and passion of the entire OpenWetWare community. We thank them for their invaluable ideas, contributions and support.

Funding. The authors acknowledge funding from the U.S. National Science Foundation Biological Databases and Informatics program award 0640709 to Drew Endy, Department of Biological Engineering, MIT.