Open methods vs open data – might the former be even harder?
Continuing the discussion set off by Black Knight and continued here and by Peter Murray-Rust I was interested in the following comment in Black Knight’s followup post (my emphasis and I have quoted slightly out of context to make my point).
But all that is not really what I wanted to write about now. The OpenWetWare (have you any idea how difficult it is to type that?) project is a laudable effort to promote collaboration within the life sciences. And this is cool, but then I realize that the devil is in the details.
Share my methods? Yeah! Put in some technical detail? Yea–hang on.
A lot of the debate has been about posting results and the risk of someone stealing them or otherwise using them. But in bioscience the competitive advantage that a laboratory has can lie in the methods. Little tricks that don’t necessarily make it into the methods sections of papers, that sometimes researchers aren’t even entirely aware of, but which form part of the culture of the lab.
The case for sharing methods is, at least on the surface, easier to make than sharing data. A community can really benefit from having all those tips and tricks available. You put yours up and I’ll put mine up means everyone benefits. But if there is something that gives you a critical competitive advantage then how easy is that going to be to give up? An old example is the ‘liquid gold’ transformation buffer developed by Doug Hanahan (read the story in Sambrook and Russell, third edition, p1.105 or online here – I think; its not open access). Hanahan ‘freely and generously distributed the buffer to anyone whose experiments needed high efficiencies…’ (Sambrook and Russell) but he was apparently less keen to make the recipe available. And when it was published (Hanahan, 1983) many labs couldn’t achieve the same efficiencies, again because of details like a critical requirement for absolutely clean glassware (how clean is clean?). How many papers these days even include or reference the protocol used for transformation of E. coli? Yet this could, and did, give a real competitive advantage to particular labs in the early 1980s.
So, if we are to make a case for making methodology open we need to tackle this. I think it is clear that making this knowledge available is good for the science community. But it could be a definite negative for specific groups and people. The challenge lies in making sure that altruistic behaviour that benefits the community is rewarded. And this won’t happen unless metrics of success and community stature are widened to include more than just publications.