Home » Blog

The case for open notebook science

14 August 2007 2 Comments

The reasons for pursuing more openess in science from the perspective of the science and funding communities have been well rehearsed and described elsewhere (see 3 Quarks Daily 1,2, and 3 for an excellent overview). There are excellent discussions of where this might take us in terms of capability and in terms of the efficient re-use of government or charity funded research. These are the reasons why many funding organisations and government bodies are beginning to mandate open access publication and making data publicly available.

Most scientists are, I think, reasonably happy with the concept of making raw data publicly available after publication. The main reasons for resistance are more to do with the hassle involved than with an in principle objection. However people are much less happy with making data available before publication. The reasons why many people are worried about the push towards making data publicly available have also been discussed (see for instance comments on Corie Lok’s Nature Network blog and the discussion at WYDIRD). The primary one is the fear of ‘being scooped’ or being ‘uncompetitive’. I think this is mostly (but not entirely) a fallacy and will come back to this in the future (after we get a paper accepted, oh the irony).

All the reasons for Open Science that others have described are good and noble. But much of this involves extra work. In particular making open notebook science work requires investment in time and tool development to get it off the ground. So what is the motivation for getting over these hurdles? Why is it worth the effort? What’s in it for me?

Well I think the answer to this may be quite simple. It could be fun. I got into science because I like talking to people about science. I worked in two great groups as an undergraduate and as a postgraduate where we argued over the details of results, the literature, and anything else of interest constantly. This was great fun. Wouldn’t it be so much more fun to talk with a global community of people who are interested in what we are doing? Alright, in practise no-one may be reading, but if it is up there and available then it’s surely more likely that someone might read it than if it’s stuck in a notebook on my desk.

There are lots of other good self-serving reasons why making stuff available could be good. Giving people the raw data makes procedures more repeatable. Methods papers are highly cited so getting your methods out there means your papers will get cited more (certainly putting the data out does). It will probably get you media coverage and help in profile building. This makes your papers more likely to be accepted, your grants more likely to be funded, your promotion more likely and all those things that make up the core of how science works in practice. But to be frank, it is worrying about all these things that I find takes a lot of the fun out of doing science. So I think it would be good to put some of it back in and this might be a good way to start to do it.


  • Your point about “fun” is not discussed enough. A related concept is satisfaction that your work is seeing the light of day in some form. Playing with early interpretations of the results as they come in is certainly fun to do and share with others. It is like putting a puzzle together with your friends.

  • Your point about “fun” is not discussed enough. A related concept is satisfaction that your work is seeing the light of day in some form. Playing with early interpretations of the results as they come in is certainly fun to do and share with others. It is like putting a puzzle together with your friends.