The Open-Science Internet

From The Boston Review:

LG: In the future, scientists may be relying on open-source projects and data sharing. As you well know, not everyone wants to share. Why do scientists lock up their data?

MN: To some extent, it’s just a question of, “What are the incentives for people to take their best ideas and take their data and share it out on the network?” If you go back to the seventeenth century, a lot of the early scientists were very reluctant to share anything at all. You have this idea of the alchemist, who would write down his private secret notes, and sometimes he would go to his grave with them. Fortunately, we have moved away from that, but it’s still true today that it is not necessarily in people’s best interest to share their ideas too broadly around too early—partially just because it can take a lot of time, and partially because people want to get the credit for those ideas, and they don’t necessarily see it as being in their best interest to share them broadly.

LG: Maybe you could talk about what’s going on right now in what you call “open science.” What’s the most interesting development you have seen so far?

MN: A project that I really like a lot is one called the Polymath Project, which has involved a large number of people, mostly mathematicians, from all over the world. They have started using blogs and wikis to collaborate together on difficult, unsolved mathematical problems. It’s a place where they can pool all their different types of expertise, hopefully get a conversation going, and maybe make some progress on problems that any individual amongst them might find very, very challenging. They have had some big successes. They have also had some other projects that haven’t gone so well, which is about par for the course in research. If you’re not having a lot of failures, it means you’re trying problems that are too easy. But it is exciting to see them doing this and pioneering a new way of doing research.

LG: In Reinventing Discovery you talk about “citizen science.” I’m wondering what that is. All of us have free time. Should we be spending it on citizen science? Can amateurs and hobbyists really contribute to scientific discovery?

MN: For hundreds of years now, amateurs have participated in science in various ways. One area where they’ve done a lot is in ornithology. Amateur birdwatchers have been really important for a long time. The exciting thing that’s happening now are these new citizen science projects, which connect amateurs with, say, the astronomy community (or many different scientific communities) to help out in solving some of the problems that astronomers have. There’s a nice project called Galaxy Zoo, which involves a quarter of a million people who are helping to analyze galaxy images. They’ve made all sorts of discoveries. They’ve written 22 scientific papers, and they’ve discovered an entirely new class of galaxy, among other things. You ask whether or not we should take some of our spare time and do it. I don’t know. I don’t think there is a moral dimension to it. It’s not a question of whether people should or not. It’s just a question of whether or not they’d enjoy doing it and maybe get some value or meaning out of it for themselves.

“The Networked Era: An Interview with Michael Nielsen”, Lindsay Gilbert, The Boston Review