Open Science

By Sean Carroll | April 8, 2011 10:10 am

[Note: this post was published prematurely, then deleted, and is now back.]

Michael Nielsen gave a great talk at TEDxWaterloo about the idea of “open science”:

There’s a great deal of buzz about “openness” in certain sectors of the science community; largely this has passed physics and astronomy by, because we’re already pretty darn open. It’s hard to image something more open than arxiv, where everyone puts their papers up for free even before they’re published in a journal.

But Michael’s talking about something much more ambitious: opening the process of creating science, not just publishing it. For experimentalists this would be difficult, for obvious reasons. (You think people who sweat to build an experiment are going to invite the public in to take a whirl?) For theory it is also hard, but the reasons are more subtle.

The point is that credit in science is given out on the basis of getting your name on published papers. In the arxiv era, the papers don’t necessarily have to appear in a traditional journal — but that’s a topic for another day. The model is set in stone: you have an idea, you work out its consequences to the point where it’s publishable, and you write a paper. Without that last step, you’re not going to get any credit. (Very occasionally you will see references to “unpublished work” or “private communication,” but it’s rare and not really for big-ticket ideas.)

So if I had an idea, I would either work it out myself or start working with students or collaborators. I certainly would not go around publicizing an undeveloped idea; I wouldn’t get any credit for it, and someone else could take it and develop it themselves. I might give seminars in which I mention the idea, but that’s only recommended once it’s to the point where a paper is on the horizon.

Michael and others want to overthrow that model. Their shining example is this blog post by Tim Gowers. Gowers is a mathematician who proposed attacking an open math problem right there on his blog, by asking for comments from the crowd. If they succeeded, they could publish a paper under a collective pseudonym. He next chose a problem — developing a combinatorial approach to the Hales-Jewett theorem — and, several hundred comments later, announced that they had succeeded. Here’s the paper. Buoyed by this success, people have set up a Polymath Wiki to expedite tackling other problems in this way.

Could this work for theoretical physics? I don’t see why not. But note that Michael spends a lot of his time in the talk pointing out the obvious — crowdsourcing doesn’t always work. I could easily imagine ways in which such a project could fail; too much noise and not enough signal, everyone with good ideas deciding they would rather work on them by themselves rather than sharing openly, etc.

Might be worth a shot, though. I’m thinking of suggesting some ideas here on this blog and seeing whether we get any useful input. Let me sleep on it.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Academia, Science, Technology, Top Posts
  • Lab Lemming

    Would crowd-sourcing a nuclear reactor cleanup work any worse than the central command model?

  • Shecky R.

    Yes, HOORAY for mathematicians leading the way in this simple but effective collaborative Web approach to problems… and I believe it likely do-able as well in at least some aspects of physics. Where I honestly expect it to be more difficult however, is in the life sciences where different personality-types and self-interest hold greater sway than that in the physical sciences (so I believe, in general) — I can imagine an Einstein or Feynman contributing to such “open science”… Watson & Crick, not so much! ;-))

  • Shecky R.

    Yes, HOORAY for mathematicians leading the way in this simple but effective collaborative Web approach to problems… and I believe it likely do-able as well in at least some aspects of physics. Where I honestly expect it to be more difficult however, is in the life sciences where different personality-types and self-interest hold greater sway than that in the physical sciences (so I believe, in general) — I can imagine an Einstein or Feynman contributing to such “open science”… Watson & Crick, not so much! ;-))
    Will be anxious to watch your ideas/suggestions unfold….

  • Sphere Coupler

    Wow, he took the some words right out of my mind, motivation must change to harvest the mass of humanity and the coupling of not only like minds but unlike minds, from different trades, professions and amongst the auto-didactic .

    The ultimate motivation can only be, For the benefit of mankind and the salvation of his environment.

    And the pay off (besides the most obvious) is that contribution will be recognized and promoted in award type settings online and/or in person/meetspace, where contributors at any level can be encouraged to not only share knowledge but put the knowledge to work in a real setting, so not only does this coupling benefit the beginning process, it is also promoted to implementation and application settings….aaaaaand the awards community recognizes such and such and such for such and such and such, and they have been awarded a stipend(by contributing nations) to help continue this excellence and of course you can be not only a true scientist … can, if you desire, and you need not the funding, to be altruistic.

    Protectionism by silence can only be overcome by recognition, as a significant set of humanity is goal orientated by necessity to financially advance, for the preservation of ones self.

    Blogging must be recognized as a valid contribution to HUMANITIES BLACKBOARD.

    And just as you site previous scientific papers author, you must cite the previous blogging author when expanding or even if a supposed failure from a blogger helps you to advance a more accurate model/design/application/etc. to get credit.
    The more people you cite the higher integrity points or kudos you receive for employment purposes. Along with other relevant contributions of course and weighted to suit the goals of humanity.

    A dissipation of a form of the current model of today, need not be abandoned, just couple them together to fit the discourse.

    Its not that lofty, it’s here and know, by necessity.

  • The Cosmist

    This all sounds good in theory, but aren’t fields like Math and Physics so elitist that really only a few people can contribute meaningfully to any project? I don’t see how you avoid being overwhelmed by noise from non-experts in a blog format. If someone can figure out how to break problems into pieces such that a thousand non-geniuses are smarter than Einstein collectively, then we will have a real revolution. I think this is the same problem the Artificial Intelligence folks have been trying to solve for decades with limited success. “Wisdom of the crowds” works well for predicting the number of jellybeans in a jar, but for coming up with a new theory of physics I’m pretty skeptical…

  • Sphere Coupler

    Sometimes obtrusive system noise goes away if you make the proper cuts, the relevant noise is a fundamental attribute of the medium, progress develops out of such noise and new threads can be started.The noise can be of great value, in that, just as we do not foresee new physics, we cannot always know from where a great idea my come, sometimes for different layers of cognition it is just as subconscious as it is conscious. With such vast libraries of data, no one person can always combine all such relevant data and as we evolve into the future it will become rarer and rarer for a true maverick to come forward, though not even Einstein was a true maverick as we all contribute to the humanities data base derived from work from those who came before us.It can not be avoided, it is nature, Individuality will not be lost as it is a cherished human quality.

    From the noise we DISCOVER the CMB(cosmic microwave background), and development starts from there, it’s a natural process.

  • Sphere Coupler

    The basic premise for discovery lies in a multitude of views/models merging amongst opposing contributors/bodies due to the hard fact that disturbance and integrated luminosity and many actions and #s of dimensions, systems within systems, are mentally acted upon in a human mass n body problem. These actions are visibly seen in the domains of collider physics as great colaborations or any fields, crafts, profession,trade etc, for that matter, they relate specifically to nature, this is why we whimsically kick or blow the dandelion florets as children, it’s no different than colliding sub-atomic particles…A quest to discovery.

  • The Cosmist

    Thank you for proving my point…

  • Richard E.

    I believe the galaxy zoo people have a couple of crowd-sourced (ie written wiki style by their user community, perhaps with some “professional” guidance) in progress. So that would be another example, and one that leverages amateur scientists’ involvement as well.

    I have looked at the some of the “math blogs” (there was a wiki/blog based analysis of a recent attempt to prove P=/=NP too — or maybe it proved P=NP — I can’t remember which, but it turned out to be wrong, either way — but given than each step in a proof has to hold up attacking the job of checking one in parallel is a good idea). With a proof you often have a good idea of where you want to wind up, and need to find a path to that point from your initial premises, and that task can again be fragmented into a series of substeps.

    However, I was not suddenly seized with the need to try it with my own work….

    I can see it working for some things — say figuring out the physical basis of a clear signal of beyond the standard model physics at the LHC, when you may have a lot of options to check — but I suspect that in practice you will see a slew of individual papers on the archive :-)

    One thing which may be pertinent is that there are some very good, technical math blogs with extremely strong discussion sections. In theoretical cosmology, cosmocoffee made a concerted attempt to get a good online discussion underway – and while it is a great resource for problems with computing, it has very little discussion of new and unpublished ideas (and much of what it does have is dominated by cranks).

    But I will be interested to see what ideas Sean throws into the mix :-)

  • Richard E.

    Double post. Edited this one away

  • Sphere Coupler

    You had a point?
    There is noise in every form of media.

  • Gordon W.

    Terence Tao often does collaborative work and encourages it on his blog.

  • Mitchell Porter

    I’ve got an idea for a new cosmology! It’s called “the Big Grip”. Some field goes to infinity in finite time, but instead of destroying everything (as in the Big Rip), it just ends all relative motion. I’m sure someone can figure out an appropriate ansatz.

  • fh

    It is worth noting that the discussion for the Polymath result was mostly between professional mathematicians including several fields medalists. The crowd whoes wisdom was harvested were exactly the people who collaborate anyways. It was more an open collaboration among scientists than a wisdom of the crowds project. Which seems to be the point of Nielsen.

    Gowers reflects on this after the first Polymath succeeded:

    “I could go on, but from the point of view of discussion I am more interested in the way that the project fell short of my expectations, and there is one way that stands out. There seemed to be such a lot of interest in the whole idea that I thought that there would be dozens of contributors, but instead the number settled down to a handful, all of whom I knew personally. (Actually, Randall, I know of you so well that I feel as though I know you but I can’t quite remember whether we have met — hope to do so soon.)”

    I remember when this started, it seemed interessting but I was busy with my own calculations, and only had rudimentary knowledge of the area. I had intended to try to follow it and hopefully put in ideas every now and then. With Gowers and Tao and collaborators working at what Gowers describes as incredible speed for them, it would have been a full time job or more for me to just follow what was being produced by them.

  • John R Ramsden

    > I certainly would not go around publicizing an undeveloped idea; I wouldn’t get
    > any credit for it, and someone else could take it and develop it themselves.

    Clearly this is how things are; but is it always how they should be?

    On one hand, “embryonic” ideas (most wrong) may be easy to toss around, and the devil is in the detail. So of course whoever develops an idea to a practical or predictive state deserves a good deal of the credit (especially if this requires more ideas).

    But there is another angle to the saying about “1% inspiration and 99% perspiration”, which is perhaps more what Edison had in mind – The 1% can be the elusive spark which might never occur to most (least of all perhaps to experts steeped in current thinking), and the perspiration can be little more than competent drudgery.

    If, say, Einstein (or anyone for that matter) had rashly announced in the company of fellow physicists “Perhaps light has the same speed for any observer in uniform motion”, then most or all of them wishing to explore that insight could have rushed off and whumped up Special Relativity in a couple of days!

    I guess if an amateur outside academia has the germ of an idea, which they are unable to develop, their best bet is to summarize it in a short paper and publish this on – Lame as that may sound, it is a “stake in the ground”, and if the same idea is later developed by someone else then its presence in a paper might at least give the latter pause for thought, and merit a footnote of credit, if diplomatically brought to their attention!

  • Carl Brannen

    After working on the problem of proving that a decomposition of unitary matrices existed, I put the question up on math stack exchange and a mathematician proved it a few days later. The question can be written as follows: Given two bases for an n-dimensional Hilbert space, does there exist a vector that has equal transition probabilities with all 2n basis vectors? It was proved at
    P.S. You have an annoying spam filter.

  • Eugene

    Kasparov once played The World, which is one of the early implementation of “crowdsourcing” :

    The World’s moves were by plurality vote (democratic chess!). Kasparov and everybody expected that it will be a cakewalk, since nobody expect that The World will vote for the strongest move as most voters are assumed to be amateurs. “The World” turned out to be an incredibly strong opponent.

    The reason is that after a few moves, several “ringmaster” began to take lead, and in a remarkable demonstration of crowdsourcing in action, analyzed the game in online forums, *and* then deciding on the best move. Several strong GM (and reputedly Fischer himself) started to contribute, and at the end Kasparov nicked a win by the barest of margins.

    (I participated in it, being a strong club player at that time, so had a nice ringside seat :)).

    I think the lesson learned in this crowdsourcing business is that (1) you need ringleaders (in the gowers example, T. Tao was almost herding the crowd…) (2) groupthink can lead people astray so you need a rabble rouser in the mix to keep people honest.


  • TimG

    The choice of problem makes all the difference, I think.

    It would be very interesting if you could find a problem that interested amateurs could realistically contribute to, although I suspect it’d be more likely to end up being a few real experts collaborating more-or-less as they already do, except in a public forum.

    Maybe something that requires a lot of numerical computation, so programmers with strong math skills but not necessarily extensive physics knowledge could reasonably contribute.

  • Ryan

    I think that “Open Science” is a very admirable concept, and should be embraced. That said, there are, of course, difficulties and growing pains. Of course, the current model of academia need not be removed, but for the maximization of human knowledge, I see no good reason for the model not to be expanded.

    First of all, I’d submit that at least the vast majority of peer reviewed research should be published for free, online. How can amateurs be expected to do anything of note without access to all the information? This is something that should have happened yesterday. ArXiv, and the physics community, should be applauded once more for setting a great example for other branches of science.

    The Cosmist is quite right about signal to noise ratio when including amateurs, but I think that certain forms of hierarchical organization* make sense here. Just as Google’s PageRank was implemented to recognize the relative importance of web pages, a similar algorithm is probably needed organize and rank ideas. As far as I can tell, this also means ranking people as “processors” so that those on the very high end (namely, eminent professors) do not waste their time on ideas that have not been vetted up through the processing tree by a number of “processors” of lower rank.

    As far as I can tell, this system of problem delegation and promotion is somewhat already employed in the traditional model of academia, with interactions between professors, graduate students, postdocs, and even undergraduate researchers. A codified structure should not only enhance the contributions of the lower level processors (many an ambitious undergrad has had their spirit crushed under the weight of a thousand fruitless experiments).

    It’s debatable on how to actually handle the promotion and delegation of ideas between processor levels, and obviously it isn’t for every idea. But I think there is something worth pursuing here. At the very least, journals shouldn’t be locking things behind a paywall in 2011.

    * – Somewhat inspired by Goertzel’s “The Structure of Intelligence”

  • Sarah

    Michael gave a great open science talk at the 2009 .Astronomy conference, where he described the Polymath experience. We then spent a few hours trying to come up with astronomical problems that might be tackled with a similar open approach – it’s very difficult! I think working towards a situation where data archives are accessible to all, code is openly shared (included with papers even) and the literature is openly discussed in online forums will take us a long way towards a more open culture in science, and a better relationship with those outside of our narrow academic fields.

    @ Richard E: the Galaxy Zoo project has an incredibly active forum that is essentially led by the users (although the science team and project leads do comment and provide answers to questions about the data). It’s amazing to see how much knowledge some of the users have sought out, entirely on their own accord, simply from classifying some Sloan galaxies….

  • Gary M

    “…and seeing whether we get any useful input.”
    Dissing syncofants is rather poor form.

  • Hauke Holtkamp

    If contributing to open science is hindering one’s career, because of the lack of recognition and reputation and the lost time that could have been spent on writing scientific papers, then this reputation has to be kept track of. If the sharing platform were to provide a reputation score for each contributor, like it has been done on for programming, then that argument is no longer valid. Unlike in wikipedia, where contributors are mainly only reputed amongst contributing peers, every user on SO has a big score tag under his name, portraying his value provided to the site.

    Once accepted in the community, the statement “My score is larger than (some number).” will be an immediate job ticket.

  • Pingback: Here and There | Cosmic Variance | Discover Magazine()

  • Pingback: Here and There | Cosmic Variance |

  • Pingback: 2011-05-20—INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY | Your Man Friday's Ideas()


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


See More

Collapse bottom bar