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A networker’s manifesto for open research

24 June 2012

Michael Gilding reviews a lively manifesto for an important cause


These colorful, flower-like objects (above) are tightly packed assemblies of 7.5-nanometer spherical lead sulfide nanoparticles. Argonne National Laboratory/Flickr

These colorful, flower-like objects (above) are tightly packed assemblies of 7.5-nanometer spherical lead sulfide nanoparticles. Argonne National Laboratory/Flickr

Reinventing Discovery: The New Era of Networked Science
By Michael Nielsen | Princeton University Press | $37.95

IN 2009 Tim Gowers – a mathematician at Cambridge University and a recipient of the prestigious Fields Medal – used his blog to invite readers to help him solve a difficult mathematical problem. He dubbed his experiment the Polymath Project.

For seven hours there were no replies. Then a Canadian academic posted a comment, followed by an Arizona high school teacher, then a fellow Fields Medallist from the University of California. Over the next five weeks, twenty-seven people exchanged 800 online comments. They not only cracked the problem; they also solved a more difficult conundrum that included the original as a special case.

The Polymath Project exemplifies the new possibilities of networked science explored by Michael Nielsen in Reinventing Discovery. Nielsen, an expatriate Australian and one-time Federation Fellow at the University of Queensland, has spent most of his career in North America – first as one of the pioneers of quantum computing, and more recently as an advocate of open science. Reinventing Discovery is a manifesto for open science, directed towards breaking the shackles of contemporary scientific culture and the scientific publishing industry.

Nielsen believes that we are on the verge of a new era of scientific discovery facilitated by the internet. Future generations will look back on this era in the same way as we look back on the first scientific revolution of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when organised science transformed human societies. While there is a tension between Nielsen as a chronicler of this transformation and as an advocate of further change, this complicates Reinventing Discovery rather than diminishes it.

The first half of Reinventing Discovery elaborates on how online tools make us smarter. It employs examples such as Microsoft’s online chess match, “Kasparov versus the World,” Linux open-source software and Wikipedia. Nielsen argues that these examples go above and beyond the “wisdom of crowds,” amplifying human intelligence at the limits of human problem-solving ability. (Nielsen has no time for those who argue that the internet reduces our intelligence. This “is like looking at the automobile and concluding it’s a tool for learner drivers to wipe out terrified pedestrians.”)

The key to online tools, Nielsen argues, is making the right connections with the right people at the right time. As it stands, scientific discovery is often constrained by lack of specific expertise, and breakthroughs often depend on fortuitous coincidence. Online tools facilitate “designed serendipity” by creating an “architecture of attention” that directs people’s attention and skills to where they are most needed.

Specifically, effective online tools “modularise” the problem, splitting it into small sub-tasks which can be attacked more or less independently. They encourage small contributions, which reduces barriers to entry and extends the range of available expertise. And they develop a rich “information commons,” allowing people to build on earlier work. Wikipedia provides a neat example of all of these things.

But online tools only work when participants share a body of knowledge and techniques – which Nielsen describes as a “shared praxis.” There are many fields of activity where there is no shared praxis, such as fine arts, politics and the better part of economics. In these circumstances, people are unable to agree on the nature of the problem, and online tools provide no help in scaling up collective intelligence.

Science is an exemplar of shared praxis. Nielsen cites the examples of Einstein, Watson, Crick and Franklin to illustrate the strength of shared praxis in science. Einstein’s theories prevailed, notwithstanding his obscurity, because “in science it’s often the person with the best evidence and best arguments who wins out, and not the person with the biggest reputation and the most power.”

The second half of Reinventing Discovery focuses on science. Again, there are plenty of examples, including the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, the Human Genome Project, Galaxy Zoo and the Open Dinosaur Project. These cases are used to make two main points.

First, open data exponentially expands scientific capacity. The Sloan Digital Sky Survey, or SDSS, illustrates this point neatly. The project has made its massive database freely available, contributing to the dramatic discovery of dwarf galaxies and orbiting black holes. “The SDSS is one of the most successful ventures in the entire history of astronomy,” Nielsen writes, “worthy of a place alongside the work of Ptolemy, Galileo, Newton, and the other all-time greats.”

Second, the internet creates the scope for citizen science on a giant scale. Galaxy Zoo, an offshoot of the SDSS, is a good example. The classification of galaxies is a task that can’t be automated but is too large to be done by professional scientists alone. Galaxy Zoo is a website that recruits amateurs to the job. So far it has attracted more than 200,000 participants, some of whom have made their own discoveries, including a new type of galaxy.

The online tools for open science include open access, citizen science and science blogging. These tools facilitate a new kind of large-scale coordination, independent of traditional hierarchies, private or public. This coordination is motivated by curiosity, rather than money. Nielsen’s quote from another author captures the idealistic spirit of his message: “We are used to a world where little things happen for love and big things happen for money. Love motivates people to bake a cake and money motivates people to make an encyclopaedia. Now, though, we can do big things for love.”

YET Nielsen is not a technological determinist. He does not think that the internet will automatically give rise to a scientific revolution. The “first open science revolution,” he reflects, occurred long after the invention of the printing press. In the seventeenth century, Galileo and his contemporaries jealously guarded their discoveries. The big breakthrough occurred with the invention of scientific journals and peer review. “That system, modest at first, has blossomed into a rich body of shared knowledge for our civilisation, a collective long-term memory that is the basis for much of human progress.”

Nielsen recognises that there are powerful forces opposed to a second scientific revolution. Traditional scientific publishing is immensely profitable. In 2009 the Amsterdam-based academic publishing company Elsevier made a profit of US$1.1 billion on revenue of $3.2 billion, which puts its profitability in the same league as Google’s and Microsoft’s. The increasing commercialisation of public research organisations also creates a major barrier to open access.

But Nielsen thinks the main barrier is the culture of scientists themselves. The current system of career advancement rewards scientific papers in refereed journals and creates a powerful disincentive to share data and build online tools. On this account, attempts to establish wikis in a wide variety of scientific fields – including quantum computing, genetics, string theory and chemistry – have failed dismally, in sharp contrast to the spectacular success of amateur enterprises such as Wikipedia.

The solution lies in building new scientific institutions to replace those that have become fetters on scientific discovery. Nielsen finds inspiration in the first scientific revolution, compulsory schooling, democracy and Galaxy Zoo. “Institutions are what happen when people are inspired by a common idea, so inspired that they coordinate their actions in pursuit of that idea.”

Government intervention is one means to new institutions. In particular, Nielsen wants to see open access and open data policies developed by government and scientific grant agencies. But he also urges scientists to build new systems of incentives. For example, “if we got a citation-measurement cycle going for code, then writing and sharing code would start to help rather than hurt scientists’ careers” and provide a “strong motivation to create new tools for doing science.”

Nielsen believes that there is a lot at stake in the reinvention of scientific discovery. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, he reflects, Easter Island society collapsed because of an “ingenuity gap.” Islanders were “unable to find solutions to the problems they had created.” Contemporary global society faces its own ingenuity gap in fields including HIV/AIDS, nuclear proliferation, looming resource shortages and human-caused climate change. Online tools provide a unique vehicle to amplify our collective intelligence and rise to these challenges.

This is a very good book. Nielsen is especially skilled in explaining complex scientific ideas in an engaging and accessible style. He boldly spans diverse fields of inquiry, from his own specialist field in quantum computing, to astronomy, biology, economics and social science. Although he is passionate about his subject, he does not launch into hyperbole; he is always measured, and quick to identify challenges, problems and limitations. As a result, he brings the reader along with him.

Yet there is a profound tension throughout the book. I have already mentioned the tension between Nielsen’s roles as chronicler and advocate. This is part of a wider tension around shared praxis. There is certainly a shared praxis in the physical and life sciences, which is a prerequisite for the new era of scientific discovery. There is no shared praxis in the study of social institutions, which is in fact pivotal to the argument of the book.

Nielsen is most authoritative when he writes about online collaborations in the physical sciences, his field of dedicated expertise. He is less authoritative when he writes about the task of building new institutions, his cause as an advocate. At this point he fudges the absence of a shared praxis in the study of institutions, and the apparently limited scope for online tools in advancing our understanding of this field.

This gap raises wider questions about the problem-solving capacity of online tools. There is certainly shared praxis in some aspects of work on HIV/AIDS, nuclear proliferation, resource shortages and climate change. But there are also fundamental and contentious issues involving ethics, politics and power. Nielsen’s faith in science causes him to promise too much for the second scientific revolution.

Yet it is difficult not to be enthused by Nielsen’s cause. If you want to get a taste, check out his lecture on Better still, read the book. It is a worthy manifesto for an important cause. •

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