Home > Scholarly Communication > The Future of IT and Science (1)

The Future of IT and Science (1)

Motivation: Interesting tidbits on the future of science and the role IT will play in it.
Problem Motivation: Although interesting, the conclusions remain, sadly, the same: lack of incentives and lack of time are the bottlenecks to a more open scientific culture (using IT tools).
Results: This blog post will cover some of those aspects from other blogs. The next blog post focuses more on my own insights and the necessity of (new) tools/ideas in line with the significance of the bottlenecks of scientific progress.

So over at “A Blog Around The Clock” I found a post that links to a blog post titled ‘The Future of Science’ by Michael Nielsen.

“And you thought it was a good idea to rip off the title. Nice.”

It is quite an interesting read. To summarize, the blog post reconfirmed that a lack of time and a lack of incentives are the main culprits as to why scholars are not achieving “extreme openness” in science. Which is, depending on your perspective, what is needed. After all, it provides scholars the opportunity to obtain and use all the existing information they want. And that generally leads to quicker and better research (results) because there is more data to support the scholars with their research. And that means progress for humankind, which normally makes us all very happy. Unfortunately, the post reconfirms that there are currently no (practical) solutions for these issues yet. According to Michael Nielsen, the “practical” solutions for this issue, if any, will likely consist of both the qualitative (IT) tools (bottom-up strategy) and the cultural support (top- down strategy) of the scientific community to acknowledge these tools as an incentive for scholars to utilize them (and share their data with them).

By the way, I think David Crotty does a fine job diluting some of the enthusiasm present in that blog post concerning ideas to change this and keeping it more grounded. For more on that, also see this blog post by shwu titled ‘The future of science, gradical change, and tools for the people’. I think it is a good reality check on the issues of “sharing” and why “extreme openness of science” may not stimulate a lot of scholars supporting this particular movement. In short: it simply is at odds with the need to “stand out”, e.g. make your own discoveries and publish your own papers, to have a shot at the limited resources, e.g. grants and lab space, that scholars desperately need to advance (their) scientific research and their scientific careers.

Not surprisingly, scholars doing their part for scientific progress and being accredited for it almost always beats scholars doing their part for scientific progress without being accredited for it. When push comes to shove, there is only so much a scholar can do unaccredited before they have to go back to doing stuff for which they are accredited for. It is not about being greedy necessarily, it is just the nature of the beast. Scholars are required to stand out and do something that enables them to acquire the necessary but limited amount of resources for their research. Kind of like Open Source developers: programming stuff free of charge is good, but they eventually have to go back to their real programming jobs to get paid before they can spend time on Open Source projects again. OK, there are some Open Source projects that can pay the bills, but most of them do not and are “just” hobby projects done while they are not out there working for a salary.

Actually, most scholars already do both types (accredited and unaccredited) of work. You see, peer reviewing is generally considered an unselfish act to help out the scientific community, and it is of immense value for certifying scientific knowledge. Well, this is more like nitpicking, but the part about it being unselfish is not entirely true. There are actually some personal advantages to peer review for journals, with networking (journal publishers/ editors) being one of them. However, that way of networking is so ineffective compared to authoring a published paper that most scholars do not consider it a practical incentive. I would add a third point, but I think the message is rather clear: accreditation is necessary!

“That was already obvious from the posts you sourced…”

Cameron Neylon over at Science in the open also takes a shot at it. He also concludes that:
 

The incentive structure remains broken – this is not a new thing – but if sufficiently high profile people start to say this should change, and act on those beliefs, and they are, then things will start to shift. It will be slow but bit by bit we can imagine getting there.

 
As for ideas to tackle these issues, he suggests financial compensation and/or ‘something to point to as recognition of their contribution.’ I am not so sure about the money thing. The thing about limited resources is that they hardly ever scale well. Eventually, it will be like participating in a lottery, where good or even great work is still unrewarded because there are so many participants, but only so many worthwhile prizes to win. In the long run, and after it grows in popularity, it will present the same funding issues as the ones we have now. On the other hand, the point is once again confirmed that there is a need for an established accreditation system, recognized by scholarly institutions that provide for said finances and prestige. How to develop and implement something that will get all of these scholarly institutions to acknowledge it as something valuable is the question, though. Anyway, it is a rather lengthy blog post, so I might not do it justice with just this one paragraph. Go read it yourself to get the full gist of it.

“Not to mention that this blog post is getting a bit long already. So keeping the musings of others short is a good idea.”

Saving the rest (and the best?) for a later blog post then. Stay Tuned!

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  1. August 20, 2008 at 10:20 AM

    Interesting post, I look forward to the follow up. I think if I phrased my argument from your perspective it would be that to have more open practice allows a more efficient and effective market to develop which should provide a ‘better’ distribution of limited resources. The current system is more akin to allowing a central body to arbitrarily set the prices of exchange (value and identity of academic credit). I guess the interesting question is whether the resources are sufficient and whether there is enough diversity in the market for it act effectively; to prevent monopolies? Is it actually big enough for a market to operate – and if not how do we go about making the pie bigger?

  2. August 23, 2008 at 10:18 PM

    You know, I wanted to put this reply I have formulated some days ago in my newest blog post, but that one is getting way too long. I guess this is also a very suitable place to put it. I hope you get to read this, too. I appreciate your input 🙂

    ‘I think if I phrased my argument from your perspective it would be that to have more open practice allows a more efficient and effective market to develop which should provide a ‘better’ distribution of limited resources.’

    The thing is, we already have an official “container” of scientific information: the scientific paper (and for grants there is the proposal format). It is the knowledge in this container that is evaluated to determine whether it is qualified for funding and the publications. For the distribution of limited resources, as you say. The reason why this “container” is (for the past 300 years or so) considered the only one worth noticing is because it works so well. So we have to really ask ourselves: do we really want an additional “container”, e.g. a blog post, to receive similar “esteem” and treatment as the scientific paper? I mean, are we talking about original research, which is what this established container is supposed to hold, or a “redo” of said original research but slightly different, e.g. summaries, opinion pieces on science or news articles? If it is about original research, then we have to ask ourselves some serious questions. Like, what is wrong with the scientific paper for containing this original scientific information and the journal model for recording and communicating this original scientific information to desire a newer container? And if there really is a need for an additional container to fulfill some purpose our established container can not, who is going to establish standards and formats for it? Who is going to enforce those standards and formats? Who will verify those formats and standards? Who will be answerable for it?

    Establishing an accreditation system means establishing a certification system, and establishing a certification system means getting qualified people to carry out those certifications. And those people would need to be held accountable, with serious consequences, because the act of “formally” sharing scientific information is a serious concept. In the current established scholarly communication model, i.e. the journal publishing model, ‘author text is answerable to referees, referees are answerable to editors and editors are answerable to the journal readerships’ (a href=”www.ecs.soton.ac.uk/~harnad/Temp/peerev.pdf). If journal editors are not doing a qualitative job? Eventually no subscribers, no funding, no salaries, no jobs and no journal. Some other journal that does provide the science people want to read and (financially) support will take its place. That is how (original) quality science is guaranteed.

    ‘The current system is more akin to allowing a central body to arbitrarily set the prices of exchange (value and identity of academic credit). I guess the interesting question is whether the resources are sufficient and whether there is enough diversity in the market for it act effectively; to prevent monopolies? Is it actually big enough for a market to operate – and if not how do we go about making the pie bigger?’

    I would love to see IT play an even bigger role in supporting scientific progress than it does now. And I know it will. I am just not sure if finding something that is either replacing the scientific paper or trying to work right next to it, competing for limited but very valuable resources is the way. We are on a rather tight budget concerning available finances, time and qualified people. If we want to attempt something like that we got to think big. Thinking big means thinking about organization, about standards, about accountability, responsibilities: about increasing that pie. I have no idea how to increase that pie, but until we do, I am not sure we should be distributing (i.e. divide) our limited resources for something that is not as solid as the scientific paper/journal publishing model in the first place.

  3. August 26, 2008 at 8:41 PM

    I need to think a little more about this – but just to make sure you don’t think I’ve just gone away 🙂

    I think I disagree with you somewhat with the first part of your reply – even if you are playing devils advocate. To me the key is that while you say that “The reason why this “container” is (for the past 300 years or so) considered the only one worth noticing is because it works so well.”… but you don’t actually say _what_ it is good at. My view is that the ‘paper’ has changed beyond any sense of recognition both in terms of ‘what it is’, and ‘how it is’. Michael has written on how peer review is actually a fairly recent concept in its generally accepted form. And the question of ‘what a paper is for’ differs widely from field to field.

    But I think the real fault lines lie in the fact that science today isn’t what it was 50 or even 20 years ago. The ‘paper’ actually is appallingly bad at presenting today’s science. Partly this is being addressed by some journals taking a more digital approach. I am particularly looking forward to seeing what Nature Chemistry looks like. But also the whole idea of ‘publishing’ datasets breaks down the barriers further.

    I don’t think we fundamentally disagree as far as I can tell but I am particularly interested in your view of efficiency and management so shall look forward to more posts in the series.

  4. August 27, 2008 at 3:18 PM

    Thanks again for your comment. I appreciate your input a lot 🙂

    ‘My view is that the ‘paper’ has changed beyond any sense of recognition both in terms of ‘what it is’, and ‘how it is’.’

    Well, I definitely do agree that, with the advent of digital communication, certainly the paper (and traditional publishing) needs to be put under some serious scrutiny. Nowadays, we want things to be dynamic, to be flexible, to be able to deal with changes fast. In that regard, the paper’s inability to “add improvements” (e.g. data that would make recreating the results more efficient) and/or “add corrections” (wherever applicable) are definitely significant shortcomings.

    So modifications of how the paper “functions” (and likely the journal publication model, which plays a big role in how the paper “functions”) are definitely needed. I think I went a bit overboard with going after you concerning “alternative” concepts (e.g. science blogging etc.) while I think your point was on sharing data to complement the paper rather than new ways of replacing them.

    On the other hand, I think “extreme openness in science” refers to (rewarding scholars for) sharing data not specifically for complementing (published) papers. And I personally think that is akin to creating a whole new alternative to the paper format, which I do not think is a good idea for the reasons mentioned in this comment section and my follow up post: eventually, we will run into the issue of efficiency and validation.

  1. August 25, 2008 at 5:20 PM

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