The working lives of scientists are of greater interest today than at any time in human history. They seem, by closing the time gap between speculation and remediation, to have completely changed roles in society. The person in the white lab coat is no longer obtuse, threatening or just eccentric – the scientist will now, with a wave of his network, solve global warming, feed the unfed and cure us all of the illnesses we have yet to contract. The other day I was sent a fascinating article on Open Science by a researcher and software developer plainly angry that “Open Science” is getting such a popular exposure (http://gigaom.com/2011/10/31/why-the-world-of-scientific-research-needs-to-be-disrupted/) while the normal benefits of regularly networked science are being ignored. And it gets one thinking, because it raises a set of issues about the relationships of professionals and their lives in networked societies that has real consequences for all of us.
After I read the above note I then read Jack Stilgoe’s review of Michael Nielson’s book in the Guardian (26.11.2011). While I have yet to read the book, my head is already in the debate in a micro-sample of three views and you, if indeed you are, make up a fourth. Whether you pass your views on to others or not, we are participating in a rapid sharing process which must have effects of its own on communication. If we were scientists and practising what Michael Nielson preaches we would be sharing our thinking, and our results, in very much the same way, standing aside from the competitive sides of our nature to create progress by collaboration within the network. Question: when we say that living in a networked society will cause all sorts of changes to the way we communicate and act, do we mean that these will be changes for the better in our fundamental characteristics as people? Dear Reader, are you an optimist about the improvability of mankind through communication – in which case Facebook may be the saviour of the race? Or, do you believe, like some philosophers of evolution, that the changes that occur will be random mutations, from which some, over time, will become built into the prevalent response mode of network users?
This week I have been thinking a great deal about teachers as well as scientists. Teachers now accept the potential gains from sharing content in a way which would have been anathema to their predecessors. We now have approaching (early next year) 2 million teachers from all over the world sharing their own treasured and successful routines with each other on TES Connect (http://www.tes.co.uk/teaching-resources/). This is a huge demonstration of altruism, and a strong desire to be recognized by peers. In appealing to his fellow scientists to adopt Open Science, Michael Nielsen seeks that same altruism, and argues well for the effectiveness of collaboration, but he is doing so in a context where peer recognition is baked into the way scientists report and publish. Of itself, the network will not change that, and all players (scholars, publishers, schoarly societies and librarians) have colluded willingly with the transfer of the networking of the paper-based world into the digital network with great enthusiasm.
So is there no effective collaborative science? Certainly there is. A very good example which I seem to have been writing about for a decade is Signalling Gateway (http://www.signaling-gateway.org/), where users greatly appreciate the need to share results – and analytical techniques and tools – in a very rapid time frame , but where participant research teams seem to retain identity (and probably funding sources). Nothing is more competitive in research than access to the money. Yet collaboration is present, and in neuroscience, or the Polymath mathematics project, or in the human genome research programme, there are good examples of collaborative success and altruistic sharing. So, if you think this is a desirable outcome, how do you breakdown the conservatism of scientists?
Much as you breakdown the conservatism of teachers, I imagine. You help them to create local, team or institution -based networking which returns real rewards in terms of workflow and productivity. Just as the school budget and timetable system, and resource sharing amongst a community of schools to raise standards through shared content have made a real impression on how schools run and teachers teach (I was impressed this week to see that every US state has now adopted iSchool standards which allow for virtual education systems) so I know that as research teams build better internal network usage and more effective control of content, then the confidence required for Michael Nielson’s wider aims will emerge. So hopefully no government will start flinging funds at Open Science: it would be better spent mandating network compliance on the use of lab chemicals and ensuring that networked analytics were available to ensure that what is known to the network at present can be shared by all participants in the network.
And these are thoughts for publishers and information providers too. We are often faced with a radical urge to change emanating from the top of a deeply conservative community of users. Our task, surely, is to work on the infrastructure and let the profession in question take care of the timing. This can be hugely frustrating, but like Michael Nielsen, we too cannot force a model of change on marketplaces.
Michael Nielsen’s book is “Reinventing Discovery: the new era of networked science” (Princeton University Press). I note with pleasure that it was sponsored by George Soros, a man who has done more good than most on this planet, and whose belief in Sir Karl Popper’s Open Society theories, ingested from the great man himself at LSE, have been a lifelong inspiration. But every change has a precurser, and putting Open in front of something does not change anything. A recent Washington Post article on Virtual Schools was contributed by my best reader/editor: http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/virtual-schools-are-multiplying-but-some-question-their-educational-value/2011/11/22/gIQANUzkzN_story.html?wprss=
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