The Route of Open Science

I want to look at an issue way back when we were looking at JSTOR. In this post, we look at the practice of ‘peer review’ in scientific journals. There will also be a mini-Spotlight which focuses on ResearhGate.

The Peer-Review Process

The journal titled ‘New England Journal of Medicine’ has celebrated its 200th anniversary in 2012. To celebrate this milestone, the journal will show with a timeline of scientific advances that was first described within its pages, starting way back in 1816 with the stethoscope, use of ether for anesthesia (1846), and disinfecting hands and instruments before surgery (1867), among others.

But this isn’t so much the problem. The problem, is that scientific journals has operated in one single way – through research done in private, then submitted to science and medical journals to be reviewed by peers and published for the benefit of other researchers and the public at large. But to many scientists, this is something of a thorn.

The system has been criticised by scientists as expensive and elitist. Peer review can take months, journal subscriptions can be prohibitively costly, and a handful of gatekeepers limit the flow of information. We saw in JSTOR how publishers can severely restrict the access to content both to people would find it useful, and the people who actually wrote it. It is an ideal system for sharing knowledge, said the quantum physicist Michael Nielsen, only ‘if you’re stuck with 17th-century technology.’ Perhaps a metaphor for how draconian this method is?

There are calls for a more ‘open science’ method, which is argued because science could accomplish much more, much faster, in an environment of friction-free collaboration over the Internet. These are their words, but perhaps they have a point. And despite a host of obstacles, including the skepticism of many established scientists, their ideas are gaining traction.

Open-acess archives/journals like arXiv and Public Library of Science (PLoS) have existed for this sole reason. Another is GalaxyZoo, a ‘citizen-science’ site which has classified millions of objects in space, discovering characteristics that have led to a raft of scientific papers. There exists collective blogs too, such as MathOverflow, where mathematicians earn ‘reputation points’ for contributing to solutions. And who says scientists don’t like to socialise? The social networking site called ResearchGate offers scientists the opportunities to answer questions, share papers and find collaborators just like Facebook— is rapidly gaining popularity. So there are those who challenge the original way of working, and it seems they are having success.

A word from the editors of those traditional journals suggests that open science sounds ‘good,’ in theory. In practice, ‘the scientific community itself is quite conservative,’ said Maxine Clarke, executive editor of the commercial journal Nature, who added that the traditional published paper is still viewed as ‘a unit to award grants or assess jobs and tenure.’ Dr. Nielsen, 38, who left a successful science career to write ‘Reinventing Discovery: The New Era of Networked Science,’ agreed that scientists have been ‘very inhibited and slow to adopt a lot of online tools.’ But he added that open science was coalescing into ‘a bit of a movement.’

Scientists can be a ‘closed’ lot when it comes to publishing research findings. Perhaps its pride, or jealousy amongst their peers. You could say it’s human nature. Whatever the reason, there is evidence to suggest that the open science direction is gaining ground. In North Carolina State University, 450 bloggers, journalists, students, scientists, librarians and programmers converged for the sixth annual ScienceOnline conference. Bora Zivkovic, ‘chronobiology’ blogger and founder of the conference, stated that ‘science is moving to a collaborative model, because it works better in the current ecosystem, in the Web-connected world.’

Spotlight: ResearchGate

Yes, the internet itself is a key player in broadening the distribution channels (words of wisdom from Gabe Newell). Because of this, Zivkovic adds that scientists who attended the conference should not be seen as competing with one another. An open science notion would be seen to benefit everyone without having to fight others for publication space in journals.

Others have similar thoughts, such as 31-year-old Ijad Madishc, a Harvard-trained virologist and computer scientist behind the mentioned ResearchGate. ‘I want to make science more open. I want to change this.’ And change he sought out to do. ResearchGate started in 2008 with few features and was reshaped with feedback from scientist participants. Currently, its membership base is over 1.3 million users which clearly states that there are enough people who believe this is the way.

To put things into perspective, it attracts a tasty few million in venture capital from some of the original investors of Twitter, eBay and, funnily enough, Facebook. ResearchGate started with 12 employees; now it boasts 70. The company, based in Berlin, is modeled after Silicon Valley startups (re: Evernote). Lunch, drinks and fruit are free, and every employee owns part of the company. Ah, to work like that….

The site is best described as a hybrid mash-up between Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, with profile pages, comments, groups, job listings, and ‘like’ and ‘follow’ buttons- with the added bonus of being streamlined for its audience. No selfies, party photos and definitely no drunken nights either. Only scientists are invited to pose and answer questions, which isn’t difficult given that discussion threads discuss the likes of polymerase chain reactions.

Scientists populate the profiles with their real names, professional details and publications, data that the site uses to suggest connections with other members. Users can create public or private discussion groups, share papers and lecture materials. ResearchGate is also developing a ‘reputation score’ to reward members for online contributions so that the rest of the community knows of their input.


ResearchGate profile, showing founder Ijad Madisch

Perhaps what this shows most of all, is how the site offers a simple yet effective end run around restrictive journal access with its ‘self-archiving repository.’ Since most journals allow scientists to link to their submitted papers on their own sites, Dr. Madisch encourages his users to do so on their ResearchGate profiles. In addition to housing 350,000+ papers, the platform provides a way to search 40 million abstracts and papers from other science databases, constituting a large database.

In 2011, the site reported 1,620,849 connections made, 12, 342 questions asked and answered and 842,179 publications shared. Greg Phelan, chairman of the chemistry department at the State University of New York, Cortland, used it to find new collaborators, get expert advice and read journal articles not available through his small university. Now he spends up to two hours a day, five days a week, on the site. Likewise, Dr. Rajiv Gupta, a radiology instructor who supervised Dr. Madisch at Harvard and was one of ResearchGate’s first investors, called it ‘a great site for serious research and research collaboration,’ adding that he hoped it would never be contaminated ‘with pop culture and chit-chat.’

Challenges to Open Science

Dr Sonke H. Bartling, who is a researcher at the German Caner Research Centre and edited a book on ‘Science 2.0,’ asks that if open access is to be achieved through blogs, what good is it ‘if one does not get reputation and money from them?’ He writes that for scientists to move away from what is currently ‘a highly integrated and controlled process,’ a new system for assessing the value of research is needed.

The challenge would be to change the status quo — opening data, papers, research ideas and partial solutions to anyone and everyone — is still far more idea than reality. As the established journals argue, they provide a critical service that does not come cheap, as well as a service that has been functioning for centuries.

‘I would love for it (science journals) to be free,’ said Alan Leshner, executive publisher of the journal Science, ‘but we have to cover the costs.’ Those costs hover around $40 million a year to produce his nonprofit flagship journal, with its more than 25 editors and writers, sales and production staff, and offices in North America, Europe and Asia, not to mention print and distribution expenses. Like other media organizations, Science has responded to the decline in advertising revenue by enhancing its website offerings, and most of its growth comes from online subscriptions.

Similarly, Nature employs a large editorial staff to manage the peer-review process and to select and polish ‘startling and new’ papers for publication, said Dr. Clarke, its editor. And it costs money to screen for plagiarism and spot-check data ‘to make sure they haven’t been manipulated.’ Peer-reviewed open-access journals, like Nature Communications and PLoS One, charge their authors publication fees — $5,000 and $1,350, respectively — to defray their more modest expenses.

The largest journal publisher, Elsevier, whose products include The Lancet, Cell and the subscription-based online archive ScienceDirect, has drawn considerable criticism from open-access advocates and librarians, who are especially incensed by its support for the ‘Research Works Act’ that was introduced in Congress. This legislation aims to protect publishers’ rights by effectively restricting access to research papers and data, as we have seen in Spotlight: JSTOR.

Michael Eisen, a molecular biologist at the University of California, Berkeley, and a founder of the Public Library of Science, wrote that if the bill passes, ‘taxpayers who already paid for the research would have to pay again to read the results.’ Again, like the issues we saw in Spotlight: JSTOR. And remember that JSTOR also stores scientific journals and content. This bill would certainly have resonance here.

As a response from the criticised Elsevier, Alicia Wise, director of universal access, wrote that ‘professional curation and preservation of data is, like professional publishing, neither easy nor inexpensive.’ Tom Reller, a spokesman for Elsevier, supported her words by saying ‘government mandates that require private-sector information products to be made freely available undermine the industry’s ability to recoup these investments.’

The Future of Open Science

Scott Aaronson, a quantum computing theorist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (more well-known as MIT), has refused to conduct peer review for or submit papers to commercial journals. “I got tired of giving free labour,’ he said, to ‘these very rich for-profit companies.’ Dr. Aaronson is also an active member of online science communities like MathOverflow, where he has earned enough reputation points to edit others’ posts. ‘We’re not talking about new technologies that have to be invented,’ he said. ‘Things are moving in that direction. Journals seem noticeably less important than 10 years ago.’

Dr. Leshner, the publisher of Science, agrees that things are moving. ‘Will the model of science magazines be the same 10 years from now? I highly doubt it,’ he said. ‘I believe in evolution. When a better system comes into being that has quality and trustability, it will happen. That’s how science progresses, by doing scientific experiments. We should be doing that with scientific publishing as well.’

Matt Cohler, former vice president of product management at Facebook who now represents Benchmark Capital on ResearchGate’s board, sees a vast untapped market in online science. ‘It’s one of the last areas on the Internet where there really isn’t anything yet that addresses core needs for this group of people,’ he said, adding that ‘trillions’ are spent each year on global scientific research. Investors are betting that a successful site catering to scientists could shave at least a sliver off that enormous pie.

ResearchGate founder Dr Madisch has understood that he might never reach many of the established scientists for whom social networking can seem like a foreign language or a waste of time. But wait, he said, until younger scientists weaned on social media and open-source collaboration start running their own labs. ‘If you said years ago, ‘One day you will be on Facebook sharing all your photos and personal information with people,’ they wouldn’t believe you,’ he said. ‘We’re just at the beginning. The change is coming.’

In conclusion, it appears that money is a root factor in the whole process. I can understand somewhat to publishers needing to recoup costs as it is not a cheap business. The fact that it costs well into the millions to keep a publication running for a year means that many libraries (physical/digital) and other institutions are going to find it tougher to keep a subscription to them.

The efforts of ResearchGate and others can be seen as a start; whether it will be a real change to the system remains to be seen. Scientists are rightly annoyed their work is restricted and going out to less people than hoped. An open science route could be the answer, but the question is: is it the best answer?

To read Thomas Lin’s article ‘Cracking Open the Scientific Process’ that formed the basis of this post:

To read an ‘introductory’ article by Laura McKenna ‘Locked in the Ivory Tower: Why JSTOR Imprisons Academic Research’ and which helped form Spotlight: JSTOR:

Finally, Scott Aaronson, mentioned above, wrote a rather cynical article ‘Review of The Access Principe by John Willinsky’ about the practices of publishing companies:


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