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The science exchange

16 April 2008 26 Comments

How do we actually create the service that will deliver on the promise of the internet to enable collaborations to form as and where needed, to increase the speed at which we do science by enabling us to make the right contacts at the right times, and critically; how do we create the critical mass needed to actually make it happen? In another example of blog based morphic resonance there has been a discussion a discussion over at Nature Networks on how to enable collaboration occurred almost at the same time as Pawel Szczeny was blogging on freelance science. I then hooked up with Pawel to solve a problem in my research; as far as we know the first example of a scientific collaboration that started on Friendfeed. And Shirley Wu has now wrapped all of this up in a blog post about how a service to enable collaborations to be identified might actually work which has provoked a further discussion.

Shirley’s proposal is essentially an exchange. People make requests and people offer to help them. I have my concerns about involving a currency element in this but that is really a separate issue in many ways. The key problem with such a system is two-fold. Firstly discovery; very often people do not know how to phrase their problem, in many cases they are not aware that they have a problem at all. Equally most will be unlikely to realise they have a solution to specific problem. For such a system to work it needs to have critical mass. My suspicion is that critical mass will be enough people that, in combination with the fact that people won’t know what they want, that it will be almost impossible for people to find each other.

Remember that what we are trying enable here is additional collaborations above and beyond those we already know we need. If people have a specific problem today, they can pick up the phone and call someone who might have the answer. We can make that easier, or faster, but to me the key benefit, the potential for a step change in the efficiency of how we do science lies in all the small things that could be done better, the collaborations that are not currently sought out, and in particular, the data that languishes somewhere because there is never quite enough for a paper. As in any ‘long tail’ exploitation the benefits come from putting all those small pieces together into useful and useable pieces of science.

So how do we make it happen? Again (sorry to go on about this) a lot relies on critical mass. We don’t have it so we’ll have to create it. With critical mass discovery is a serious problem. One solution is ‘better search’, perhaps semantic search, but if this is about finding problems that people haven’t realised they have then that’s a very deep semantic problem. Actually this is exactly the kind of thing, like tagging photos, or checking Wikipedia articles, that humans still beat machines at time and time again. I think the thing that actually makes the connection has to be a person. Indeed this is the way this kind of thing already works. I see colleague X struggling with a problem and I think ‘they should talk to colleague B’ because she has solved a very similar problem in a different system.

People are connected in a social network, and within the scientific network it is possible to identify ‘supernodes’ that provide the connectivity that drive innovation and new collaborations. These supernodes are not always wildly successful scientists; actually they tend to be scatterbrains who struggle to focus on one thing for long enough to get it finished, but they have the broad knowledge to make connections. Many of them leave academic science because the restrictions chafe (you know who you are). We can enable these people to be more effective by providing them with feeds from various sources; blogs, online literature libraries, journal articles, and in some cases open or partially open lab books. These feeds can provide the raw data that would drive such a system. And the good bit is we don’t actually need researchers to opt in. Obviously the more data someone is generating the more chance of spotting their problem or opportunity, but it is possible to generate a feed without the researcher in question actually generating it themselves. Quality (of the feed, not the content) will be an issue but that would be something to work on going forward. I think a ‘launch’ is precisely the wrong thing to do. This is a classic case of closed alpha (friendfeed?)  move to closed beta with a gradual move to an open beta. The point to ‘launch’ such a thing is when you’ve already got a set of success stories to tell in my view.

You want to follow people who make good collaborators and so there clearly is a place for a rating system within the process. By providing people with opportunities you will make the case to them that they should be generating a richer feed so that we can provide them with more opportunities or solve more of their problems. Shirley suggested the notion of a currency, but my belief is that people will be happy to contribute, within their available resources, as long as the work is properly attributed in peer reviewed publications. Authorship is enough of a currency to drive collaborations.

But what about those resources? And in particular what about the humans in the middle driving this system. Are they doing it for the love of it (the Wikipedia model). Will they get credit on the papers for making the connection? And if they do will a string of mid-author list papers do them any good in their career progression particularly if that career is outside academic science. Let’s turn that on its head. If this were a startup, with the ‘connectors’ being paid, where would the money come from? No-one will pay to subscribe to such a system, and they won’t pay a tax or fee to undertake collaborations either. First right of refusal on IP might be an answer but it’s a long term, high risk route, and it means the system would focus on exploitable results, which is arguably exactly the place where markets are already reasonably effective at driving the formation of these collaborations.

What is being generated here is new science, and science isn’t paid for per se. The resources that generate science are supported by governments, charities, and industry but the actual production of science is not supported. The truly radical approach to this would be to turn the system on its head. Don’t fund the universities to do science, fund the journals to buy science; then the system would reward increased efficiency. As it exists at the moment the funding system does nothing to support increased efficiency.

In stock exchanges and money markets, people are paid an awfully large amount of money to make what are fundamentally rather simple connections between buyers and sellers. This is still, for the most part, ultimately handled by humans, although there is a move towards fully automatic position taking. The connections we are talking about are much more complex to understand. To make this work we need to figure out how to reward the people who can make those connections. We also need to find a way to put money into the system to actually help provide the additional resources required to actually make things happen.

Turning the funding system on its head is probably not viable and while it makes a nice thought experiment I’m sure there are many reasons why its a terrible idea. What we need to do is find research funders who are serious about increasing their return on investment; not in terms of money, but in terms of results; in terms of science. I think if we can do that, and convince someone of the case for a return on their investment, the rest of the technical problems will be pretty straightforward to crack.


  • Cameron, that’s exactly the kind of radical thinking we need. I’ve talking about microfunding and virtual marketplaces before, often in a business context, but similar thoughts could be extended into an academic context. At least there should be the opportunity for some people to work in that kind of environment.

    I don’t think this money to enable this going to come from the Government, but non-profits like the Gates Foundation or Google.org or the Wellcome Trust, or from true microfunding systems.

  • Cameron, that’s exactly the kind of radical thinking we need. I’ve talking about microfunding and virtual marketplaces before, often in a business context, but similar thoughts could be extended into an academic context. At least there should be the opportunity for some people to work in that kind of environment.

    I don’t think this money to enable this going to come from the Government, but non-profits like the Gates Foundation or Google.org or the Wellcome Trust, or from true microfunding systems.

  • Haven’t time to do better than offer a quick idea: right now, for Open Science, critical mass is about people — that’s the central point of the discussions you link, and other similar ones; I don’t think it’s coincidence that this idea is being batted around in various places at the same time, it’s an idea whose time has come.

    I think some kind of clearing house for human capital would help OS make the next big step. Didn’t you have some kind of database started up? I think perhaps a wiki, which could be largely self-maintaining, might be a better method — but whatever form it takes, what we Open Science types most need right now is a way to find each other.

  • Haven’t time to do better than offer a quick idea: right now, for Open Science, critical mass is about people — that’s the central point of the discussions you link, and other similar ones; I don’t think it’s coincidence that this idea is being batted around in various places at the same time, it’s an idea whose time has come.

    I think some kind of clearing house for human capital would help OS make the next big step. Didn’t you have some kind of database started up? I think perhaps a wiki, which could be largely self-maintaining, might be a better method — but whatever form it takes, what we Open Science types most need right now is a way to find each other.

  • Rarely does a blog post make me want to weep. I mean that in a good way :)

    It’s been clear to me for some time that academia is simply not structured in a way that allows room for ideas like these. Perhaps critical mass can begin to change that.

  • Rarely does a blog post make me want to weep. I mean that in a good way :)

    It’s been clear to me for some time that academia is simply not structured in a way that allows room for ideas like these. Perhaps critical mass can begin to change that.

  • @Deepak It seems to me that Gates foundation and/or Google or even Microsoft are exactly the right ones to be putting in the initial capital. Microfunding can actually be backed out of grants in many cases but the key first step is liquidity I think.

    @Bill Yep, there’s a rather folorn little database at http://tinyurl.com/6q7rwu which people can in fact sign up to on a form. But there’s not been too many people doing that. The problem is that there are lots of spots around where people are vaguely trying to connect people up. I’m hesitant to suggest setting up _another_ website. But the need for communication is clear. Perhaps doing this through science commons or OKF is a good way forward.

    @Neil Don’t cry too much, you’ll electrocute yourself! But yes, if we had resource, it might be possible to give people much more freedom to get on and do science rather than fight through the heirachy. We could change the way the funding system works with relatively small amounts of money (well alright a couple of hundred million, but you know, that’s relatively small bickies in the scheme of things)

  • @Deepak It seems to me that Gates foundation and/or Google or even Microsoft are exactly the right ones to be putting in the initial capital. Microfunding can actually be backed out of grants in many cases but the key first step is liquidity I think.

    @Bill Yep, there’s a rather folorn little database at http://tinyurl.com/6q7rwu which people can in fact sign up to on a form. But there’s not been too many people doing that. The problem is that there are lots of spots around where people are vaguely trying to connect people up. I’m hesitant to suggest setting up _another_ website. But the need for communication is clear. Perhaps doing this through science commons or OKF is a good way forward.

    @Neil Don’t cry too much, you’ll electrocute yourself! But yes, if we had resource, it might be possible to give people much more freedom to get on and do science rather than fight through the heirachy. We could change the way the funding system works with relatively small amounts of money (well alright a couple of hundred million, but you know, that’s relatively small bickies in the scheme of things)

  • Getting big funders interested in these ideas would definitely help get something started, and would eventually help with the critical mass part, too. Most people are willing to try anything that’s backed or developed by Google simply because they are experts at innovation – and, because their product is essentially information, they may be ideal for partnering with the knowledge-gathering aspect of “supernode facilitation”. Having “prepublication” search engines tailored to lab wikis, open notebooks, blogs, web feeds, and open data / prepublication repositories might be an interesting complement to literature search engines. Instead of searching for what’s been done and published, search for what’s happening right now and in progress (and could benefit or give benefits through collaboration).

    I’m not quite sure how you pitch such an idea to Google (their Google.org foundation does not accept any unsolicited proposals except in a few topic areas, none of which seem to relate to open science), but I do have friends in high places there who may be able to give me some tips. Of course, we probably need a much more structured layout of a project idea before we initiate any talks of that nature. ;)

  • Getting big funders interested in these ideas would definitely help get something started, and would eventually help with the critical mass part, too. Most people are willing to try anything that’s backed or developed by Google simply because they are experts at innovation – and, because their product is essentially information, they may be ideal for partnering with the knowledge-gathering aspect of “supernode facilitation”. Having “prepublication” search engines tailored to lab wikis, open notebooks, blogs, web feeds, and open data / prepublication repositories might be an interesting complement to literature search engines. Instead of searching for what’s been done and published, search for what’s happening right now and in progress (and could benefit or give benefits through collaboration).

    I’m not quite sure how you pitch such an idea to Google (their Google.org foundation does not accept any unsolicited proposals except in a few topic areas, none of which seem to relate to open science), but I do have friends in high places there who may be able to give me some tips. Of course, we probably need a much more structured layout of a project idea before we initiate any talks of that nature. ;)

  • Given the amount of activity lately, I think people are finding each other. We’re doing it right now with the funding problem for Open Science. What we really need is to have comments from Gates/Google/Microsoft people who are in a position to give feedback about funding. I am somewhat surprised that we don’t see posts from the Foundations on most discussion of funding Open Science…hopefully that will come.

    Deepak’s knowledge of microfunding could come in mighty handy for figuring out ways of doing this. Well the Gates deadline is end May – for my group the malaria focus makes sense. Maybe we can try to make a novel funding mechanism as part of the proposal..

  • Given the amount of activity lately, I think people are finding each other. We’re doing it right now with the funding problem for Open Science. What we really need is to have comments from Gates/Google/Microsoft people who are in a position to give feedback about funding. I am somewhat surprised that we don’t see posts from the Foundations on most discussion of funding Open Science…hopefully that will come.

    Deepak’s knowledge of microfunding could come in mighty handy for figuring out ways of doing this. Well the Gates deadline is end May – for my group the malaria focus makes sense. Maybe we can try to make a novel funding mechanism as part of the proposal..

  • Hmm, I wrote a comment earlier but it doesn’t seem to have made it – perhaps I clicked “cancel” by mistake? Well, the gist of that comment was concurring with the suggestion of Google as a good partner for the kinds of services we’re talking about – they deal in information, which is primarily what open science is about, they know how to develop successful web projects, and they would help greatly with the critical mass part (who doesn’t want to learn about the latest offering from Google?). One related project they might be interested in is to build a specialized search engine for pre-publication or research-relevant information like blogs, open notebooks, lab wikis, open data repositories, and prepublication servers; kind of a complement to Google Scholar or PubMed, which search published literature. It’s fine and good to search for “finished” and published work, but imagine how interesting it would be to find research that’s currently ongoing, and perhaps would benefit from collaboration (yours or theirs). Not sure how this would differ from regular web search, but it would be nice to get relevant hits to “research in progress” (and open for you to see).
    In terms of getting feedback from corporate research foundations, it’s a shame that Google.org only allows proposals for a select few topics (understandable, because they’d be inundated in short order), but I can try to work my network of Google affiliates to see if I can wrangle an audience with someone there. Of course, it will help to have a clear idea of what we want to accomplish. I may be jumping the gun here (blame my youthful enthusiasm), but what exactly would we want to pitch to a project manager or VP?

  • Hmm, I wrote a comment earlier but it doesn’t seem to have made it – perhaps I clicked “cancel” by mistake? Well, the gist of that comment was concurring with the suggestion of Google as a good partner for the kinds of services we’re talking about – they deal in information, which is primarily what open science is about, they know how to develop successful web projects, and they would help greatly with the critical mass part (who doesn’t want to learn about the latest offering from Google?). One related project they might be interested in is to build a specialized search engine for pre-publication or research-relevant information like blogs, open notebooks, lab wikis, open data repositories, and prepublication servers; kind of a complement to Google Scholar or PubMed, which search published literature. It’s fine and good to search for “finished” and published work, but imagine how interesting it would be to find research that’s currently ongoing, and perhaps would benefit from collaboration (yours or theirs). Not sure how this would differ from regular web search, but it would be nice to get relevant hits to “research in progress” (and open for you to see).
    In terms of getting feedback from corporate research foundations, it’s a shame that Google.org only allows proposals for a select few topics (understandable, because they’d be inundated in short order), but I can try to work my network of Google affiliates to see if I can wrangle an audience with someone there. Of course, it will help to have a clear idea of what we want to accomplish. I may be jumping the gun here (blame my youthful enthusiasm), but what exactly would we want to pitch to a project manager or VP?

  • Anna

    Keep me posted about funding on this idea – we had had thoughts (a couple of years back) about running a similar, but smaller-scale concept as a consultancy (with an industry collaborator, who was very interested – this could be a potential ‘clientele’ in part) – but it never took off because of resource – money and time. I think there would be a lot of interest, it just needs to jump the activation barrier.

  • Anna

    Keep me posted about funding on this idea – we had had thoughts (a couple of years back) about running a similar, but smaller-scale concept as a consultancy (with an industry collaborator, who was very interested – this could be a potential ‘clientele’ in part) – but it never took off because of resource – money and time. I think there would be a lot of interest, it just needs to jump the activation barrier.

  • Having an interesting conversation with Raik Gruenberg over lunch where we talked about the concept of driving the adoption of some sort of ‘Open Science License’ through providing a system (like a combination of the above integrated with a lab book system) which was associated with some sort of microfunding. Essentially drive the adoption of open practice and an enforceable system of protection by providing a service that people can’t afford not be a part of.

    In terms of funding I think we do need to develop a clear proposal for such a system as Shirley suggests. I am beginning to get an idea in my head of what this might look like and will try to post on this in the next couple of days.

  • Having an interesting conversation with Raik Gruenberg over lunch where we talked about the concept of driving the adoption of some sort of ‘Open Science License’ through providing a system (like a combination of the above integrated with a lab book system) which was associated with some sort of microfunding. Essentially drive the adoption of open practice and an enforceable system of protection by providing a service that people can’t afford not be a part of.

    In terms of funding I think we do need to develop a clear proposal for such a system as Shirley suggests. I am beginning to get an idea in my head of what this might look like and will try to post on this in the next couple of days.

  • Jon Udell’s “Internet Groupware for Scientific Collaboration” (now available at http://207.22.26.166/GroupwareReport.html) might be eight years old, but it’s still prescient in many ways.

  • Jon Udell’s “Internet Groupware for Scientific Collaboration” (now available at http://207.22.26.166/GroupwareReport.html) might be eight years old, but it’s still prescient in many ways.

  • Thank you Cameron.
    As a ‘scatterbrained’ scientist/physician, I have been sporadically devoting time to the Open Science movement over the past year. My initial inspirations were Jean-Claude Bradley and a couple of posts by Bora Zivkovic and Bill Hooker. Sorry I haven’t discovered your genius writings till now!

    Your post and many of the comments are brilliant, and will indeed eventually reach critical mass. I would love to try to help – with JCB’s help, I started a collaborative science wikispaces site, where research proposals get optimized through a crowdsourcing approach. Eventually it would be great to award independent funding for cooperative execution of these proposals.

    But besides attracting funding, there is a requirement for some sort of rating system, as you point out. Perhaps you and others could take a look at my preliminary thoughts on such a rating system, tabbed the ‘Public Contribution Rating’, at http://sharescienceideas.wikispaces.com/Public+Contribution+Rating

    Further inspired by your efforts, Noam Harel

  • Thank you Cameron.
    As a ‘scatterbrained’ scientist/physician, I have been sporadically devoting time to the Open Science movement over the past year. My initial inspirations were Jean-Claude Bradley and a couple of posts by Bora Zivkovic and Bill Hooker. Sorry I haven’t discovered your genius writings till now!

    Your post and many of the comments are brilliant, and will indeed eventually reach critical mass. I would love to try to help – with JCB’s help, I started a collaborative science wikispaces site, where research proposals get optimized through a crowdsourcing approach. Eventually it would be great to award independent funding for cooperative execution of these proposals.

    But besides attracting funding, there is a requirement for some sort of rating system, as you point out. Perhaps you and others could take a look at my preliminary thoughts on such a rating system, tabbed the ‘Public Contribution Rating’, at http://sharescienceideas.wikispaces.com/Public+Contribution+Rating

    Further inspired by your efforts, Noam Harel

  • Return on investment in terms of science? I think…these days it is difficult to find research funders who doesn’t think about returns in terms of money. Everybody thinks in commercial way.

  • Return on investment in terms of science? I think…these days it is difficult to find research funders who doesn’t think about returns in terms of money. Everybody thinks in commercial way.

  • Thanks for the information on ‘supernodes’

  • Thanks for the information on ‘supernodes’