As a researcher, you may brag about the open, collegial way that scientists share their findings in lab meetings, poster sessions, and journal articles.
But if you dig beneath the surface, you’ll find a darker tendency built into our habits and institutions that actually cover up a lot of what we learn.
For example, you might spend months testing the efficacy of a new cancer drug in vitro. But if that drug doesn’t have a significant impact on cancer growth, you’ll conclude your work is ‘not publishable,’ and the discovery will languish in your lab notebook.
Meanwhile, in some other lab, at some other University, another scientist might get the same idea you had, and spend their own weeks or months doing the same tests, only to learn the same result.
And so, year after year, the research community wastes immeasurable time re-learning the same lessons. And because of that, the march toward real insights and real cures slows to a crawl.
This week on the show, we talk with Jon Tennant, PhD, who wants to re-open the channels of scientific communication and transform the way we build on what others have learned.
The “Open Science” movement goes far beyond sharing negative results. It builds on the “Open Source” software movement that has been vital to the software engineering community for a generation.
It encompasses all aspects of the scientific process, from planning experiments to sharing raw data to educating the public.
Jon described just a handful of ways that scientists are opening their methods to the wider world.
The first idea is the microPublication. Rather than gathering reams of data in the hopes of crafting a ‘story’ that a journal is willing to pick up, micropublishing focuses on sharing the results of individual experiments – pushing the data out to other scientists as they happen. In this way, you can collaborate in near-real-time, and inspire new paths of inquiry – even if the original idea doesn’t pan out.
Another way to open your research is through pre-registration. In this mode, you present your hypothesis and research plan to a third party for review before you begin to collect data. That way, no matter the result, the world gets to learn about your experimental approach and whether the hypothesis was supported or rejected.
While these novel modes of publication might sound exciting, they can have a hard time gaining traction in an academic setting where the Impact Factor of a journal can mean a promotion or a dismissal. How are postdocs and junior faculty members supposed to adopt these new publishing methods when the hiring or tenure committee puts so much stock in the ‘top-tier journals?’
Weaning academics from their addiction to Cell, Science, and Nature requires a cultural solution. The San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment encourages signatories in academia and funding agencies to look beyond the Journal Impact Factor when making hiring and funding decisions.
They highlight “the need to assess research on its own merits rather than on the basis of the journal in which the research is published.”
Another campaign called “Free Our Knowledge” takes the pledge for open science one step further. On this platform, scientists can individually commit to stop publishing and peer reviewing for closed-access journals. But instead of unilateral disarmament, the pledge doesn’t ‘activate’ until enough of their peers also sign on.
That way, no single scientist has to sacrifice their career while their peers continue to support closed-access publishing. No one is required to speak out until their voices are unified with thousands of others.
It should be obvious that this world of open science is developing rapidly, and it can be hard to keep up with changes. That’s why Jon and his colleagues have created OpenScienceMOOC.eu, a clearinghouse and online academy for all things ‘open’.
In this Massively Open Online Community, you can complete modules on subjects like open-sourcing data or public engagement, or connect with other like-minded scientists in the dedicated Slack channel.
However you decide to connect, Jon encourages scientists to “take a deep look inside of yourself, and figure out why you are here doing research, what you want to achieve, and how you are going to achieve it.”
“And [find out] whether or not the way you are practicing research is aligned with those values… Are you satisfied with chasing impact factors?”
This week, we try to squeeze in one last sip of summer with the Flamingo Planet Guava Blonde Ale from Ecliptic Brewing in Portland, OR.
We apparently waited a bit too long to sample this spring-seasonal beer, as it got a bit foamy, hazy, and skunky. Oh well, maybe next year!