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The OPEN Research Network Proposal – update and reflections

12 December 2007 4 Comments

Despite all evidence to the contrary, I have not in fact fallen off the end of the world. I have just been a little run off my feet over the last week or so. A quick weekend trip to the south of France (see here for probably rather too much detail) and a lot of other things, not least some wrangling over allowed costs for the grant, have been keeping me busy.

The research network proposal was successfully submitted on Tuesday 27th November, some six days after I proposed here the possibility of applying for this grant. To echo what Mat Todd said, I haven’t ever been involved with a grant proposal that came together so fast, and while it still involved several days with very little sleep on my part it could not have been put together without a great deal of assistance from a large number of people. The final version of the proposal is here and I will try to put up a page on OpenWetWare for further discussion. The text of the case for support is also available at Nature Precedings. Precedings were uncomfortable about hosting the financial details of the proposal and I think this is interesting in its own right and will write on it later. Here, however, I want to reflect on the process of preparing the grant and what worked well and what didn’t.

Finding the community

The use of this Blog and the subsequent diffusion of the request for help through a number of other blogs was very effective and quite rapid. Diffusion was important and the proposal was featured on a wide range of blogs (1, 2, 3, 4, 5…others?). Given the very short time scale the number of people that became involved was really very high. People are able to move much faster than organisations so on the timescale that we were working it wasn’t possible to get organisations such as PLoS, Nature Publishing Group, BioMedCentral etc. formally involved by the time of the grant submission. I am still very keen to get the involvement of organisations like these and others and it isn’t too late to send a letter of support as I can update these at any time.

It is interesting to contrast this with the response I received to my earlier request for collaborators on the protein-DNA ligation project. In the case of the network proposal I was very rapidly swamped with support whereas for the actual science based project I haven’t had a response as yet. I think this is a good demonstration that while the Open and Connected approach can be effective, it is currently working best for development and networking projects associated with open and connected practises. As a research community we work very well on our common interests, where we have critical mass. However beyond this, in the areas of our ‘real research’, we are not yet seeing the potential benefits to anywhere near the same extent. I believe this is because we don’t yet have either critical mass nor a sufficiently connected network of researchers. In my view a central aim of the Research Network should be to break out of the ghetto and start to enable and demonstrate the benefits we know and have seen in the context of a wider range of scientific disciplines.

Writing the grant

In the process of writing and editing the grant it became clear that contributors have very different ‘contribution styles’ and that different types of contribution had higher or lower chances of making it into the final document. The proposal was written in GoogleDocs based on a first draft that I put together rather rapidly. The structure changed significantly over the course of the six days. Some contributors preferred to email specific comments whereas some got right in and hacked away at the text. At times there were six or ten people simultaneously editing the document. I am particularly grateful to those who spent the last night before submission going through and finding typos (although there are still quite a few I am embarrased to admit). This made the final stages of ‘cleaning up’ much easier.

Those who directly edited the document saw a much higher chance of their changes making it into the final document. Email comments were also valuable and were included or taken account of in many cases but because they were less immediate there was a greater tendency for them to be passed over or simply lost in the rush. At all times I took the arbitrary decision that I would delete, adapt, or add text as I saw fit. While a concensus approach may have worked, if more time was available, with the time restraints imposed it seemed to me that strong ‘editorial’ guidance was required to hit the final target.

Overall, this was a relatively pleasant way to write a proposal. The fact that many eyes went over the text was a great help and made me much more confident, even when I took a final decision to remove something, that a range of views had been explored, and that there was less chance of us missing important details. The full editing record is available in GoogleDocs if you have editing rights to the document. At the moment I don’t think I can expose the history. I considered doing the writing on OpenWetWare but that would have required people getting accounts, and the extra 24 hours involved there may have meant we didn’t make it. A wiki is nonetheless probably a better framework for this kind of writing.

Submitting the grant

The mechanics of the submission process meant that essentially no-one else had access to the financial details and there was little point discussing these. I wrote the justification of resources and Workplan on my own simply due to time contraints. The logistics meant that the text had to be closed off from the GoogleDoc at a specific time and then adapated to fit the available space. You can see what was done by comparing the final GoogleDoc version with the submitted version.

Would this work for a ‘real’ grant application?

As far as I am aware this is the first time a grant application has been written ‘in the open’ like this. However this is not a conventional research project. It is not clear at the moment whether the same benefits would be seen for a conventional project. Part of the reason people contributed was that they could be directly involved in the network. This would not be the case for a conventional project – would be people who would see no personal benefit be prepared to contribute as much? Having said that, the benefits of having many eyes on the proposal were clear, and made it possible to turn around the submission much faster than would otherwise have been the case. Perhaps the question is not so much; would people contribute? as; what is the best way to encourage people to contribute?

Thanks for everyone who helped and all those who offered support. It wouldn’t have happened without the contributions and support of a lot of people. You know, this Open Science thing actually works!


  • It is too bad that you still have not had a volunteer to help with your scientific work on DNA. The subset of people who want to help AND actually can help is much smaller than on this higher level collaboration proposal. That is going to take some time and I don’t think this should discourage anyone from continuing to share their work and ask for help on the Open Network.

  • It is too bad that you still have not had a volunteer to help with your scientific work on DNA. The subset of people who want to help AND actually can help is much smaller than on this higher level collaboration proposal. That is going to take some time and I don’t think this should discourage anyone from continuing to share their work and ask for help on the Open Network.

  • It is shame but not necessarily suprising. This is early days yet so I can’t expect everything to fall into place. What is really positive is that we have demonstrated that there are benefits when the community is in place. That is the thing to really take forward and publicise I think.

  • It is shame but not necessarily suprising. This is early days yet so I can’t expect everything to fall into place. What is really positive is that we have demonstrated that there are benefits when the community is in place. That is the thing to really take forward and publicise I think.