Why open science?

The birth of a movement in four main questions.

The take-away

  • CERN’s Large Hadron Collider and the European Human Brain Project are two prominent examples of international collaboration. “Small science” has much to learn from them.
  • Instead of working alone, the 40 contributors to an online forum discussion needed only seven weeks to solve the first challenge of the “Polymath Project”.

Since Antiquity, science has gone through cycles of openness and secrecy. The answers to four questions explain the current revolution.

How did the movement start?

With the digital revolution, a series of paradoxes brought science to a crisis. Far from becoming more evenly and easily distributed, knowledge has increasingly been held hostage by scientists, publishers and private companies. This crisis is not unprecedented. Since antiquity, science has gone through cycles of openness and secrecy.

When 17th-century scholars realised that keeping their results secret was slowing their progress, they began trading information for credit. “This first scientific revolution built a reputation economy in which researchers were rewarded not for the production of knowledge, but rather for disclosing it to the public,” explains Bruno Strasser, a professor at the University of Geneva who focuses on the history of life sciences. “Together with the invention of the printing press, this led to a period of openness with the widespread adoption of scientific journals.”

As publishing houses were gradually privatised, they started to abuse their dominant position as knowledge providers. In the last decade of the 20th century, the high fees they charged subscribers and their significant profits triggered resentment. Taxpayers who had already paid for the research would have to pay again to read the literature. Also, instead of using the opportunities for collaboration offered by Web 2.0, publishers still released scientific reports in a PDF format that was basically a bad digital substitute for paper. To address these flaws, several scientific communities decided to invent the future of knowledge dissemination. The open-science movement was born.

What does it take?

Sometimes referred to as Science 2.0, open science is a revolution in the making. People are building digital tools to help scientists share their research as soon as possible, throughout the entire research life cycle – from the initial hypothesis, during data collection and the experimenting phase, to dissemination of the results.

Open science is more than a publishing revolution. In his book Opening Science, Sascha Friesike, a professor at the University of Würzburg and researcher at the Alexander von Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society in Berlin, describes the five trends that compose the open-science movement. “As in any industry, user frustration is a powerful source of innovation,” he says. “Many of the tools developed to accelerate the pace of knowledge-sharing are launched by scientists.

”Some manage to stay in research while working on their solution. Lawrence Rajendran, a professor of neurosciences at the University of Zurich, recently founded ScienceMatters. With his start-up, he wants to revolutionise the way research results are evaluated and shared. “We try to fix as much as possible of what is broken in the current system,” he says. One example: instead of writing a story based on work carried out over several years, researchers can use ScienceMatters to quickly release a single observation. “Their work is judged not on the potential impact of the finding, but only on the quality of the science,” insists Rajendran. ScienceMatters is what is called an open-access platform: everyone can read it free of charge.

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Who benefits?

“Big science” experiments – large-scale projects that require multi-billion investments from governments– have always been open by design. CERN’s Large Hadron Collider and the European Human Brain Project flagship program led by EPFL are two prominent examples of such international collaboration. But “small science” has much to learn from these examples. Sharing resources brings down costs and prevents duplication of data. Open-access publications can also have more impact, as measured by citations and media coverage.

“There is a wealth of information available already,” says Gernot Abel, a science manager at biotechnology firm Novozymes in Denmark. “What we need is a more open conversation between two different cultures: academic curiosity and industrial innovation.” People are central to this process, not data.” Nicola Breugst, a professor of entrepreneurial behaviour at the Technical University of Munich agrees. “It is important that scientists make the information accessible, but also that they act upon the findings.”

“Outsiders often lack the experience, the feeling of ownership or the legal permission to use this knowledge and turn it into a product.” Breugst believes the lack of openness with respect to sharing data sets is especially glaring in the social sciences: “Behavioural sciences produce a lot of information that would be useful for real-life applications, for management and organisational decision-making for example.”

What are the success stories?

Sharing not only the results but also the process of science is a key ingredient to making it faster and more collaborative. Instead of working alone, the 40 contributors of an online forum discussion needed only seven weeks to solve the first challenge of the “Polymath Project” launched in early 2009. With this spectacular case of “massively collaborative mathematics”, Timothy Gowers, a professor at the University of Cambridge, demonstrated that many minds can work together to crack difficult mathematical problems. To insist on the collaborative dimension of the initiative, every paper that reported a solution was published under the pseudonym D.H.J. Polymath.

Global health is another discipline in which rapid access to results can make a difference. Recently, the threats of Ebola and Zika epidemics have led to faster and broader information sharing among research labs. More surprisingly, pharmaceutical research, a field normally extensively protected by secrecy and intellectual property, has sometimes opened its vault. In 2010, JQ1, a molecule that showed great potential as a tool to study epigenetic mechanisms and treat various types of cancer was described by Jay Bradner and his team, then at the Harvard Medical School.

In a pioneering move, not only did they publish the chemical structure but they also agreed to send samples to anyone interested. The results are staggering: five years later, more than 500 labs worldwide have tested the JQ1 molecule and the original publication has been cited more than 800 times.

Bruno Strasser (University of Geneva), Sascha Friesike (University of Würzburg), Lawrence Rajendran (University of Zurich/ ScienceMatters), Gernot Abel (Novozymes), Nicola Breugst (Technical University of Munich), Timothy Gowers (University of Cambridge).