Over 6 months later

So it’s been over six months since I started this blog and I thought that this might be an appropriate moment to pause and reflect. During this time I’ve experienced several major changes culminating in a move to my new institution, the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin where I’ll be a fellow for 2009/2010. These changes have been reflected in a serious lack of productivity for the past couple of months. Now that I’ve moved to Berlin and my fellowship is starting I’m hoping to reassess my involvement in open science via this blog. (And to try and restart my scientific contributions here.)

I originally started this blog for a variety of reasons, some noble, and some not so noble ;), including,

  1. I wanted to experiment with this whole science 2.0 thing in the context of a theoretical science.
  2. I wanted to silence the critics of open science (eg., by showing openness is no bad thing).
  3. I wanted to create a new venue to disseminate my research agenda.
  4. I wanted to find new collaborators and outsource (crowdsource?) expertise to solve my problems.

After 6 months or so on I feel that I am in a good position to assess how things have gone. So here goes.

1. Is there anything to this science 2.0 thing?

Yes and no: I’ve discovered some very interesting web tools to do all sorts of things which can help me to organise my scientific workflow. I really like bookmarking tools like del.icio.us. I also absolutely love tiddlywiki (although mine is sadly neglected of late); the nonlinear note-taking of tiddlywiki perfectly matches my approach to research. (I’m extremely curious to see if google wave will provide a more natural science 2.0 tool. I look forward to being able to participate when enough invites become available.)

However, I’ve discovered that other webtools (namely Twitter!!) insidiously (and seriously) fragment my concentration and free time.

(Now that I’m beginning my fellowship at the Wissenschaftskolleg I’m going to turn over a new leaf and completely shutoff internet access for several hours every day… I figure this might help me focus better.)

I’m less clear on blogging as a means of scientific outreach: I haven’t tried to seriously do this yet, but it occurs to me that this is an ideal medium.

2. On the criticisms of open science

There is one criticism of open science that I think, from my personal experience, is totally unfounded: that is the worry that people will “steal” your ideas. This certainly never happened to me over the past 6 months. I know this is a stupid argument, as I probably had nothing worth stealing etc. etc. But I also think, for other reasons, that it is an unfounded concern. Firstly, the blog posts are time stamped. Secondly, to actually steal an idea/result someone would probably have to write everything up carefully etc., and that, in itself, is hard work, which is rather unattractive. But this is all obvious.

However, this isn’t really the actual concern that critics have: the main worry that many of my colleagues express is not that someone will come and copy a solved problem from a post and make a paper, but rather that, if one was to post their favourite open problems openly, then someone else will solve them faster! Many people have expressed this concern to me.

Evidently, the currency of theoretical physics is not solved problems, but rather “solvable problems” coupled with a good intuition for how to solve them: I know lots (most?) of people who hoard interesting conjectures which are on the edge of solvability. These are the primary treasures of theoretical physics.

Open science asks you to reveal these treasures and, in the process, give up the intellectual credit for their solution; if someone quickly goes and solves the problem using your own suggested method and writes it up then all you’re likely to get in return is a citation for suggesting the problem and the argument. I have certainly experienced the frustration of posing a solvable problem and suggesting an appropriate method of solution only to find that someone else had gone and solved it using my suggested method, wrote it up, and didn’t even acknowledge our conversation.

There’s not much I can say here: I do believe this concern *is* justified. And since these treasured problems are potential papers, every time someone shares a solvable problem (+appropriate intuition for a solution) then one exposes oneself to a considerable risk of losing all credit for the potential paper.

In my experience, to first order ;), noone actually reads the scientific content on a blog. (This is pretty easily detected by looking at the blog stats, the “soft” posts always attract an order of magnitude more views.) This is natural: there are simply not many people who work in areas related to my work, and it would be presumptious to expect that everyone should read the technical posts. So the only rejoinder I can make to the criticism that sharing solvable problems is bad is that noone will read them.

3. The blog as a venue for a research agenda

Maybe. It certainly helps me: at conferences people now often know exactly what I’m thinking about and this helps conversations to start.

4. The blog as a means to find new collaborators?

No. This hasn’t helped me at all so far; I haven’t found a single new collaborator this way. Worse, most potential collaborators are quite hesitant at the prospect of having research posted online before it is complete.

Is this blog really open science?

No. I’ve had to withhold several research results from this blog. This is because of many reasons (eg. the project predated the start of the blog, my collaborators were unwilling, or I didn’t have enough time to type stuff up). So, sadly, I must confess that I’ve failed the purity test of open science…

Will truly open theoretical science ever eventuate?

My quick answer: no. Here’s why: I think we’re in a local optima which would require most scientists to simultaneously and completely change their behaviour in order to shift away from. What do I mean? As I discussed above: the currency of theoretical physics (at least) are “solvable problems+solution intuition”. If *everyone* shared there little stash of this treasures then I agree we’d live in utopian world where science would be advanced as quick as possible. Except, this global optima is unstable: all it takes is for a couple of scientists to “cheat” and hoard their solvable problems to get an edge on their colleagues and thus kick us away from this global optimum. (This is all preconditioned on papers being a metric for success in the scientific community. Yeah, I know that’s not correct but, hey, if you’ve ever sat on a hiring committee you’ll know it isn’t too far wrong.)

This is my simple intuition for why things will always stay the same. I know it’s pessimistic; but I can’t think of how to realistically create the conditions so that the global scientific optimum becomes stable. (Give increased credit to problem ideas? How?)

Where now?

I don’t know. I’ll probably go quiet again for a couple of weeks while I adjust to life here in Berlin. After that I hope to restart my research. However, I’m hoping to spend several months learning new stuff outside my area of expertise. This probably won’t produce many new results, hence, not many posts. But I’ll try and summarise my efforts here, if it fits naturally into my workflow…

Many thanks for your attention and your comments!

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10 Responses to Over 6 months later

  1. Matt Leifer says:

    Thanks for sharing your experience. It is very helpful in thinking about the best tools for developing open theory.

    However, I do think that you are holding open theorists to a higher standard than open experimentalists, so this makes for an unfair comparison. For experimentalists, the main requirement is that they share all their data and provide full details of their laboratory setup, but not that they share every idea for an experiment or method that they come up with. The main issue is providing enough information to enable other people to reliably reproduce your result. Nobody ever said that you have to dump the entire contents of your brain onto the internet in order to be counted as an open scientist.

    • tobiasosborne says:

      Dear Matt,

      You are absolutely correct that open theorists ought not to be held to the same standards as open experimentalists. I was unclear on this point. What I should say in qualification is that I think it is hard to actually assess beforehand what is junk and what is the kernel of a good research project (at least I find it is). It seems necessary to work on the idea a bit and then assess it. Finding the right noise filter to apply to stop simply making a brain dump and also simultaneously allowing people to participate before the project goes far is tricky. I don’t feel I’ve succeeded at this so far…

      Sincerely,
      Tobias

  2. Congratulations on your new position! I think your summary can be useful for others looking into increasing the sharing of their science. Ultimately you have to do what makes sense for you. Hopefully you will continue to experiment with Open Science and find a way of doing it that benefits you – and the community. I don’t think you need to adopt full ONS to gain something useful from sharing.

    • tobiasosborne says:

      Dear Jean-Claude,

      Many thanks for your encouragement: I don’t actually intend to give up on ONS/OS. But I must confess I find it quite challenging to keep it up in the face of external pressures (eg. finding collaborators, time, and rewards).

      I totally agree that sharing can be useful (surely it is self evident! 🙂 ) and I do hope the world will change to this model…

      What I should add by way of an addendum to my post is that I think there *are* venues/projects where openness is truly succeeding in a theoretical science, namely, the polymath projects. These projects may be the best way to benefit from openness in a theoretical science.

      Sincerely,
      Tobias

  3. Tobias – the polymath project is a good example of an OS that works. We don’t know what will work till we try. Good luck with all your projects!

  4. Renee Barrenechea says:

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  5. […] ideas and concerns relating to my various research projects; whilst I appreciate that open science doesn’t always work, I hope the site will prove Boring But Beneficial to the […]

  6. […] gave up on open science a while ago (see this post for details). However, I’ve always wanted to give it another […]

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