Why I became an open scientist…

I was asked a very interesting couple of questions on Twitter last week that got me thinking: Why did I go open? Why do I share my science? To me the answer is very simple: Because science by nature is about knowledge, and in today’s world gaining knowledge cannot be achieved without sharing knowledge. After all, sharing is caring!

Here is the question that sparked a mini-conversation:

@eperlste: @Thescienceofant I noticed your data on Figshare! How many of your peers know about it, express interest when you describe it?

The answer was not many. Honestly, I’m surprised by how many people here at UNM have no idea that open science is a movement and that sharing your data is an option. I get told that last little bit all the time! There are tons of students who get excited when I mention that I share my data and methods and they have no clue that they are allowed to do this too!

Mr. Eperlste (Ethan Perlstein) then asked a follow-up question:

@eperlste: @Thescienceofant so what convinced you to share?

Since it is twitter I had to sacrifice the long and good answer for the stupid answer of “I’ve been a full open notebook scientist for 4 years. I wouldn’t be very good at it if I didn’t share.” But this is my notebook and now I can go into the juicy details…

When I was first introduced to the concept of open science in 2007, I remember thinking “Wait, this isn’t how science is done?” I was new to scientific research and new to graduate school. My PI had just told me some horror stories of his graduate education/career and explained this is why he wants us to be an open lab.

I was so puzzled to learn that there are scientists out there who treated scientific information like it was something to make money off of. The data that we collect isn’t really for the pursuit of knowledge. It’s all about being self centered. Data is for intellectual property. Understanding how the world works seemed to be more about furthering your career than it is improving the place we live.

It didn’t make any sense. And it still doesn’t.

Here I was thinking that science is the most pure field in the world. Everything you do in the name of science is about education, understanding, and building. But the truth was, science wasn’t about any of that.

So at that time, it made sense to share my data. I was just doing what I thought I was supposed to be doing. And back then I thought I would do the world a favor, like Wikipedia. Today, though, I realize that being open is much more than just giving a little help. Being open is bigger than me, bigger than you, and bigger than all the scientific knowledge that exists right now. It’s how science has to be if our culture is going to survive moving forward.

Currently the scientific culture isn’t about education, and it certainly isn’t about sharing. It still is about understanding though. Deep down every scientist is curious, and they all greatly enjoy learning new things. Why else would we be scientists at all? Research certainly isn’t a field that is fun unless you absolutely love science. And after undergrad, you are trained to do something so well that you have trained yourself out of real world job skills, so there isn’t much market for us outside of academia.

Being open allows me to explore the curiosity that I have as a scientist. But it also allows me to be free! I don’t need to rely on people directly teaching me how to perform experiments. I can learn from everyone who shares their experimental technique.

I don’t need to worry that I’m the only scientist doing molecular biology in my building. I can learn from the vast resources made available by people like me. And because they shared with me, I’m sharing back. Because I found their resources useful, I’m sure others will find mine useful (and I’ve heard instances of that being true).

Being open also allows me to educate in a way that has never been seen before. There is a huge disconnect between science and society. Every once in a while, there is a press release about some experiment in Switzerland, or Hawaii, or Japan, or Brazil, etc but those press releases get butchered by the media. By being open, I’m taking matters into my own hands. Who is more capable of properly explaining my research than myself? No one, and that’s why this notebook was created.

Being open allows me to share, and it allows others to build. I’ll only be doing the experiments carried out in this notebook for a short time longer. I don’t want my questions to fade from existence like they did back in the 1950’s. Someone out there is just as interested in these questions as I am. And one day someone will pick up from where I left off.

And they won’t have to start over.

I had to start from scratch. Never again! The next in line, can start from where I ended. And then someone can pick up from where they left off, and so on. And this can happen in every scientific field, for all studies, in all universities/instituions, ALL OVER THE WORLD!

Why wouldn’t anyone want that to happen?

Why don’t we want the public to understand what we do? Why wouldn’t we want them to care about our research like we do? Why wouldn’t I want someone to benefit from both my failures and my successes? Why wouldn’t I want someone to be able to build upon my work without having to waste any time?

And why wouldn’t anyone want to share their discoveries with the entire world, not just the elite few who can access those discoveries through journals?

I want all those things, and that’s why I’m an open scientist.

  • http://mammalssuck.blogspot.com/ Katie

    LOVE your post! Although I actually think that science is still about education, understanding, and building. The being self-centered aspect emerges when science and academia collide to become ‘Science.’ Thank you for explicating why open science is so crucial for moving forward, for everyone.

    • http://www.iheartanthony.com Anthony Salvagno

      It still is about education, understanding, and building, just not to the extent that it should be. I don’t ever hear stories of droves of scientists going to schools to teach children about the interesting things going on in their labs. Only a small percentage of scientists do science writing for the general public. At this stage the education is mostly in a closed community (to other scientists), but it should be for everyone. And the understanding and building are in the same boat, only we are preventing ourselves from building!

  • Jeremy

    The number of people who have to reproduce effort because others aren’t open are forcing science to be a two-steps-forward, one-step-back process. Great post.

    • http://www.iheartanthony.com Anthony Salvagno

      I agree. And In my case, the water experiments I’m working on are a perfect example of this. Instead of being able to pick up from where the last publications end (sometime in the 1950’s), I had to start completely from scratch doing the same experiments Gilbert Lewis did in 1932. If there were better protocol methods from back then, I wouldn’t have had to start so fresh. Only a few months ago did I finally catch up and was able to move forward.