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Open Source Research - Science on Devtome?

There was a recent article posted on Devtome that seemed to intimate that there was someone out there who was considering using Devtome as a platform for scientific insight. They concluded that Devtome is too open and that the ability of anyone to potentially alter another member's content would ensure that it was not a fitting environment for research to be shared in a reasonable fashion. While this is true in principal, it is a question that no one was really considering - Devtome is experimental in nature, that much is true, but there has been no push to use it as a platform for sharing scientific research. That being said, it is interesting to consider the possibility of open source academic scientific research as a potential avenue for future expansion in this increasingly intertwined and technologically linked world that we live in. While a site like Devtome may never be a good platform for such an implementation, what would a collaborative open source research conglomerate look like?

The Current State of Research

For much of the general public, familiarity with the current state of scientific research is likely to be a low priority. Typically, if scientists make a very major or interesting discovery then it will get picked up (and likely twisted, but that is an issue for another day) by the mass media. For many people, this is likely to be the extent to which they are familiar with cutting edge scientific research efforts. Obviously, research will still have a major impact on their lives in the long run, producing important vaccines or medicines, or revealing critical insights into who we are and how we got here. The trail from initial experimental ideas and hypotheses to the production of a new drug or the canonization of a new theory is one that is long and fraught with challenges for researchers that the public has never really had to consider if they do not have any interest in science or science policy. Could this blind faith in the scientific process be a problem that might be remedied by switching to a more open scientific enterprise?

In the USA and in many other countries, the majority of major scientific research is funded by the government. It is true that there are certain private institutions and charities that fund specific kinds of research or drug/vaccine development, however on the whole the majority of funded research is paid for by the government. This, in turn, means that anyone that pays taxes to the government is thus funding research. If you were to pay someone to write you a book, then you would expect that once said book was written you would have access to the book so that you could read it and fully appreciate its content. This, however, is not currently how things work for much of scientific research. When a scientist makes a significant discovery, they write it up in a scientific journal article, which they can then submit to any of a large and growing number of major scientific journals, which then publish those articles that they deem important enough at regular intervals. Unfortunately for the general public, historically speaking many of these articles are not open source - even though you may have helped to pay for the research that was published in this paper, you will not be able to read the paper unless you pay an extra fee.

This closed model of science has been increasingly decried in the last several years, and there have been efforts to move away from such a model in favor of a more open system of journal article access. Many of the major scientific journal publishing companies such as Science, Nature, and Cell have created spinoff journals that are specifically designated as being Open Access. Researchers that submit their articles to these journals will ensure that their work can be read by anyone that has internet access who is interested in learning the specifics of a scientific endeavor. Unfortunately, this push for open access has also resulted in the creation of several journals that are the research equivalent of email spam - Open access For Profit journals with poor quality control. When a scientific article is submitted for publication, it is first reviewed by experts in the field who can identify flaws in the article and who would be able to tell if an article were falsified in a clear fashion. This review process does not always catch fallacious articles, but it is important for both quality control and for improving the state of scientific literature in general. Many of the newly generated Open access journals, however, will claim to be “peer reviewed”, when in fact they will have no rigorous review process at all. Anyone that submits an article to them and pays them their indicated “publication fee” will be able to have their work added to the collection of scientific dogma.

While these journals do ensure open access to data and allow the public to view the articles they publish with ease, the articles are often not worth publishing. Recently, an article in the Journal Science described an experiment of sorts conducted by a scientist who wanted to investigate the rigor of these pay to print open access journals. He wrote a computer program that would randomly generate a scientific journal article that would sound legitimate to the untrained eye, but that would almost immediately fall apart if subjected to a real review process. He also ensured that the results were not too surprising, as that would likely send up more red flags for review. When submitted to many open access journals, as many as half of the journals said that they would publish his randomly generated nonsense article making it clear that they had not ever gone through the review process. Further efforts to contact the alleged reviewers revealed that indeed many had never received the articles in question. This largely served to confirm the dangers of these journals that aim to cash in on the open access trend, but why is there some resistance to open access in the scientific community?

Even though science may be presented as having the lofty goals of understanding the world and saving lives, in the end it is still an institution that is governed by the ins and outs of capitalism - funding is essential to conduct scientific research. Such funding is hard to come by in this day and age, and often relies upon federal grants (awarded to less than 10% of applicants in most cases) or select private research funding institutions. Thus, researchers need to do all that they can to secure their funding. This often results in the expansions of a set of patents on new research discoveries that have the potential to prove marketable. This most often occurs in biomedical research, when a researcher identifies a gene or protein or chemical that shows promise for treating some disease or condition in their experiments. They will often patent this discovery so that if it is ever sold to the public then they will reap some of the monetary rewards of this discovery. Some faculty even found their own companies that will monetize their patents in order to ensure that they get more money in this way.

In addition, when competing for federal grand money there are a number of important criteria that are considered, and among the most important are that the research being carried out is high in its impact - that is, that the research has the potential to promote significant new understanding of the world. For this reason, it is important for scientists to be the first to identify a discovery. If two labs are working on a similar area of research and make the same discovery, then the lab that publishes that discovery first will forever be remembered as the lab that made that discovery, even if credit ought to be shared. This constant effort to be “first” results in scientists avoiding revealing what it is that they are currently working on, out of fear that a competing lab will see that they are working on something and will rush in to “scoop” their research, which might prove to be devastating to that lab and to its funding, as well as to the lives and livelihoods of its members.

This constant effort to obscure one's work until it is finally complete likely helps to explain the initial closed off nature of published scientific research. By restricting access to research, it is likely that one will delay any effort being made to subvert that research. This is not likely the main driving factor behind closed journals, however, as all major research institutions should have access to these high power journals. Once again, the culprit seems to be profit - this time on the part of the journals in question. If a journal has closed access then they will be able to charge individuals or universities to view the new scientific discovery, and the more novel and important the discovery the more people will want to pay to learn more about it. For this reason journals will restrict access to new article for the first few months after it comes out in order to increase their own income. While this may sound selfish, scientific journals are generally for profit companies and at the very least they need to be able to afford the costs associated with publishing such a journal and distributing it. Indeed, in order for open access journals to meet these costs or profit margins, they charge the scientists publishing their work a hefty fee prior to publication, which may be difficult for a less well funded lab to afford thus preventing them from making their data accessible after all.

The conflict between open access and clsoed access research journals is one that will likely not be resolved for several years. On the whole. however, there does seem to be a trend towards robust support for open access research as the public becomes more aware of science and of their capacity to interact with it. In time, it will likely be possible to eliminate many of the parasitic open access journals that aim to prey upon well meaning scientists. Until such a time comes, however, each lab and scientist needs to consider their priorities when they go to publish their discovery - do they value speed of publication? Do they need it to be accessible to anyone who might want to read it immediately upon publication? Are they able to afford the costs of open access publication fees if that is their preferred route of publication? As the scientific research and publication community adapts to the open environment of this information age, the effects on science may be impressive in their support for collaborative discovery. But what might such collaborations look like, and when would they do more harm than good?

Online Collaborative Research

Imagine if interested scientists were not competing with each other for funding, for impact, or for novelty of their projects. In such a perfect environment, in theory scientists would pursue research for research sake, and would not have any ulterior motives that might encourage them to obscure their research from the view of others. These scientists might be able to openly share their ongoing research with anyone that could see it on the internet, providing unprecedented access to the process of scientific research and development. This could allow the public to gain updates on the cutting edge of science. They could, in theory, scrutinize an new experimental result and draw their own conclusions about it, and they might then be able to provide those thoughts to the scientists that had conducted the experiments directly through an online interaction. If they had the proper resources, they would be able to replicate or follow up upon the experiment themselves and demonstrate their own result on that same website. Such a means of sharing research would obviously not work on a site like Devtome - the ability for anyone to modify the work of another would be too open to abuse. But on a more closed medium like a blog or forum, what might the results be of implementing such a scientific development environment?

An interesting advantage to such a system is that it might allow people that could otherwise not compete with larger labs to contribute data to important scientific endeavors. Large research projects are very expensive, preventing labs from conducting certain kinds of costly research such as that involving human or animal subjects. If some lab were to use an open source platform to publish a study conducted in lab mice, then it would be possible for a smaller lab to also contribute data to this effort. That smaller lab might not be able to afford their own mice, but they may have certain cell lines that still provide them with important and useful data. They can thus conduct experiments with their cells and upload these results to the open source research platform, where it would be added to the studies of the first group working with the more costly mice. These data would complement the data of the first research group, and would allow a lab that would otherwise not have been able to contribute to help advance that area of scientific knowledge. This capacity would have the obvious benefit of ensuring that scientific advancements would be well informed by all those that have the ability to contribute to them, in contrast with the current model. Currently, if researchers follow up on major research result then their results will likely find a home in a low impact journal of little consequence. The ability to directly contribute to an ongoing study would have the potential to benefit all parties involved, and thus benefit science as a whole.

One of the cornerstone tenants of science and of research in general is peer review - if you want to canonize your groundbreaking result, your fellow scientists must first review it to make sure that the experiments actually support your conclusions. Often, reviewers will ask a lab to conduct some follow up experiments to address their concerns about a paper before it can be published. On the one hand, using the internet in an open and constantly updated fashion to observe ongoing research could serve to expedite the review process - if someone had a controversial or odd result, reviewers could immediately request a follow up experiment without waiting for many months (as occurs in the current scientific publication model). On the other hand, however, this might allow unqualified people to ask misinformed questions. After all, if the project were open for anyone to view then people who are not scientific peers to the researchers would potentially sidetrack proper and helpful scientific discussion with their own agendas or concerns - for example, an anti vax parent might try to disrupt normal vaccine research for biased and asinine reasons. There would need to be some restrictions on any ongoing review process for this model to be effective in any way shape or form. The most effective processes might require reviewers to submit their own experimental plans or even their own data in order to support any concerns they may voice about a particular research study.

Perhaps the larger issue with such an open model of scientific research would be the fact that it might falsely lend legitimacy to projects that do not deserve it. If all works published on an open online scientific community were treated with equal deference, then this would allow researchers to manipulate their data to gain undue attention. While the open nature of the platform might allow other labs to replicate or falsify unimportant results more quickly, the ability for people to publish unimportant or false data may have the side effect of causing other labs to lose a lot more money in the effort to validate their results. Indeed, science is supposed to rely upon replicating others experiments yet this is rarely done in this day and age because of the costs associated therewith and the fact that a replicated result is not something a lab can publish if they want funding. With funding and novelty of less concern in such an online environment, labs may be more free to replicate results, which in many cases would be for the best but in some instances would potentially result in the spending of large amounts of money following up a result that ultimately proves unimportant.

Optimizing an online means of providing for collaborative research is certainly an interesting proposition, and hopefully as the current scientific research and publication model adapts to the modern age it is an avenue that will be more seriously considered. At present it will often take researchers months to years to get a scientific result published, meaning that the ability of others to expand upon the result re similarly delayed, thus slowing down the scientific progress for all involved, at the expense of the society that such science would benefit. An online platform that allowed for both rapid and reliable scientific publication would do wonders to expedite the scientific process. Such a system would require careful development to ensure that only well reasoned research and well reasons critiques were given abundant attention, but the potential of the system would allow for scientists throughout the world to give thoughts on the work of their peers in nearly real time. This would inevitably improve the rats of scientific research and drug development, which could only be beneficial to society. It is unlikely that science will be fully adopting such a publication model any time soon, as concerns about funding and fame make this model something of a pipe dream. Still, it is a nice dream, and it is too early to say with any certainty that the future does not hold some idealistic hope of such a united scientific research front.

Science | Science in Society


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