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A personal view of Open Science – Part II – Tools

1 October 2008 No Comment

The second installment of the paper (first part here) where I discuss building tools for Open (or indeed any) Science.

Tools for open science – building around the needs of scientists

It is the rapid expansion and development of tools that are loosely categorised under the banner of ‘Web2.0’ or ‘Read-write web’ that makes the sharing of research material available. Many of the generic tools, particularly those that provide general document authoring capabilities, have been adopted and used by a wide range of researchers. Online office tools can enable collaborative development of papers and proposals without the need for emailing documents to multiple recipients and the resultant headaches associated with which version is which. Storing spreadsheets, databases, or data online means that collaborators have easy access to the most recent versions and can see how these are changing. More generally the use of RSS feed readers and bookmarking sites to share papers of interest and, to some extent, to distribute the task of triaging the literature are catching in in some communities. The use of microblogging platforms such as Twitter and aggregation and conversational tools such as Friendfeed have recently been used very effectively to provide coverage of conferences in progress, including collaborative note-taking. In combination with streamed or recorded video as well as screencasts and sharing of presentations online the idea of a dstributed conference, while not an everyday reality, is becoming feasible.

However it is often the case that,while useful, generic web based services do not provide desired functionality or do not fit well into the existing workflows of researchers. Here there is the opportunity, and sometime necessity, to build specialised or adapated tools. Collaborative preparation of papers is a good example of this. Conventional web bookmarking services, such as del.icio.us provide a great way of sharing the literature or resources that a paper builds on with other authors but they do not automatically capture and recognise the necessary metadata associated with published papers (journal, date, author, volume, page numbers). Specialised services such as citeulke and Connotea have been developed to enable one click bookmarking of published literature and these have been used effectively by for example using a specific tag for references associated with a specific paper in progress. The problem with these services as they exist at the moment is that they don’t provide the crucial element in the workflow that scientists want to aggregate the references for, the formatting of the references in the finalised paper. Indeed the lack of formatting functionality in GoogleDocs, the most widely used collaborative writing tool, means that in practice the finalised document is usually cut and pasted into Word and the references formatted using proprietary software such as Endnote.The available tools do not provide the required functionality.

A number of groups and organisations have investigated the use of Blogs and Wikis as collaborative and shareable laboratory notebooks. However few of these systems offer good functionality ‘out of the box’. While there are many electronic laboratory notebook systems sold by commercial interests most are actually designed around securing data rather than sharing it so are not of interesthere. While the group of Jean-Claude Bradley has used the freely hosted WikiSpaces as a laboratory notebook without further modification, much of the data and analysis is hosted on other services, including YouTube, FlickR, and GoogleDocs. The OpenWetWare group has made extensive modifications to the MediaWiki system to provide laboratory notebook functionality whereas Garret Lisi has adapted the TiddlyWiki framework as a way of presenting his notebook. The Chemtools collaboration at the University of Southampton has developed a specialised Blog platform . Commercial offerings in the area of web based lab notebooks are also starting to appear. All of these different systems have developed because of the specialised needs of recording the laboratory work of the scientists they were designed for. The different systems make different assumptions about where they fit in the workflow of the research scientist, and what that workflow looks like. They are all, however, built around the idea that they need to satisfy the needs of the user.

This creates a tension in tool building. General tools, that can be used across a range of disciplines, are extremely challenging to design, because workflows, and the perception of how they work, are different in different disciplines. Specialist tools can be built for specific fields but often struggle to translate into new areas. Because the market is small in any field the natural desire for designers is to make tools as general as possible. However in the process of trying to build for a sufficiently general workflow it is often the case that applicability to specific workflows is lost. There is a strong argument based on this for building interoperable modules, rather than complete systems, that will allow domain specialists to stich together specific solutions for specific fields or even specific experiments. Interoperability of systems and standards that enable it is a criteria that is sometimes lost in the development process, but is absolutely essential to making tools and processes shareable. The use of workflow management tools, such as Taverna, Kepler, and VisTrails have an important role to play here.

While not yet at a stage where they are widely configurable by end users the vision behind them has the potential both to make data analysis much more straightforward for experimental scientist but also to solve many of the problems involved in sharing process, as opposed to data. The idea of visually wiring up online or local analysis tools to enable data processing pipelines is compelling. The reason most experimental scientists use spreadsheets for data analysis is that they do not wish to learn programming languages. Providing visual programming tools along with services with clearly defined inputs and outputs will make it possible for a much wider range of scientists to use more sophisticated and poweful analysis tools. What is more the ability to share, version, and attribute, workflows will go some significant distance towards solving the problem of sharing process. Services like MyExperiment which provide an environment for sharing and versioning Taverna workflows provide a natural way of sharing the details of exactly how a specific analysis is carried out. Along with an electronic notebook to record each specific use of a given workflow or analysis procedure (which can be achieved automatically though an API) the full details of the raw data, analysis procedure, and any specific parameters used, can be recorded. This combination offers a potential route out of the serious problem of sharing research processes if the appropriate support infrastructure can be built up.

Also critical to successful sharing is a shared language or vocabulary. The development of ontologies, controlled vocabularies, and design standards are all important in sharing knowledge and crucial to achieving the ulitmate goals of making this knowledge machine readable. While there are divisions in the technical development and user communities over the development and use of controlled vocabularies there is little disagreement over the fact that good vocabularies combined with good tools are useful. The disagreements tend to lie in how they are best developed, when they should be applied, and whether they are superior to or complementary to other approaches such as text mining and social tagging. An integrated and mixed approach to the use of controlled vocabularies and standards is the most likely to be successful. In particular it is important to match the degree of structure in the description to the natural degree of structure in the object or objects being described. Highly structured and consistent data types, such as crystal structures and DNA sequences, can benefit greatly from highly structured descriptions which are relatively straightforward to create, and in many cases are the standard outputs of an analysis process. For large scale experimental efforts the scale of the data and sample management problem makes an investment in detailed and structured desriptions worth while. In a small laboratory doing unique work, however, there may be a strong case for using local descriptions and vocabularies that are less rigorous but easier to apply and able to grow to fit the changing situation on the ground. Ideally designed in such a way that mapping onto an external vocabulary is feasible if it is required or useful in the future.

Making all of this work requires that researchers adopt these tools and that a community develops that is big enough to provide the added value that these tools might deliver. For a broad enough community to adopt these approaches the tools must fit well in their existing workflow and help to deliver the things that researchers are already motivated to produce. For most researchers, published papers are the measure of their career success and the basis of their reward structures. Therefore tools that make it easier to write papers, or that help researchers to write better papers, are likely to get traction. As the expectations of the quality and completeness of supporting data increase for published papers, tools that make it easier for the researcher to collate and curate the record of their research will become important. It is the process of linking the record of what happened in the laboratory, or study, to the first pass intepretation and analysis of data, through further rounds of analysis until a completed version is submitted for review, that is currently poorly supported by available tools, and it is this need that will drive the development of improved tools. These tools will enable the disparate elements of the record of research, currently scattered between paper notebooks, various data files on multiple hard drives, and unconnected electronic documents, to be chained together. Once this record is primarily electronic, and probably stored online in a web based system, the choice to make the record public at any stage from the moment the record is made to the point of publication, will be available. The reason to link this to publication is to tie it into an existing workflow in the first instance. Once the idea is embedded the steps involved in making the record even more open are easily taken.

Part III covers social issues around Open Science.

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