Saturday, February 7, 2009

Personal open science challenges

There was recently a very interesting thread regarding open notebook science in the Science 2.0 friendfeed room. This was in response to Michael Nielson announcing that Tobias Osborne had begun doing open notebook quantum information theory. I think this is fantastic, and my kudos go to Tobias (whom I don't know). The friendfeed debate had to do with whether Tobias's work can be called open notebook science, which has a specific definition.

The debate got me thinking again about something that's been bothering me recently. I've been having a hard time getting my thoughts straight, and that's still true. I'll quote myself and then try to clarify:

A really good motto for a scientist who wants to be open could be this: "Be as open as I personally want to be." This is very different than "be as open as possible." What I am specifically thinking is that young scientists (i.e., not yet beaten-down) seem to usually have very natural tendencies towards open science. But the overall level of natural talent for openness may vary enough that "open notebook science" may just not be the best method of openness for some people. But everyone can strive to "be as open as they want to be", and resist pressure to be closed coming from outside (fear of scooping; lack of technical means; resistance from colleagues). In contrast to these external pressures, I think it may be legitimate for someone to want to be open, but also maintain some privacy so they can get a personal reward of doing something all by themselves, for example. Perhaps posting all of their electronic notes 6 months or a year down the line.

"Be as open as I want to be." I don't know if that has value for anyone else, but it a very powerful mission statement for me right now. It's powerful, because I really believe in it, but I am not achieving it. I'll talk about that later in the post. But, first I want to talk about it in a more positive light.

What kind of openness should be required?

I am starting to decide that I'm not going to try to force my lab members to do specific kinds of open science. I am thinking instead that my goal will be to remove as many barriers as possible so that my lab members can achieve the level of openness they desire. I believe that adults have unchangeable natural talents, and I think that scientists will be cutout for different kinds of openness. For example, Anthony in our lab has recently started doing open notebook science, true to its definition. I am really excited about this. He is a natural for ONS. I don't think that he has any problem writing anything in public. In fact, I think his notebook being open is a motivator for him to make it even better than he would a private notebook. This is the way he's wired, and it's not surprising if you know him. In contrast, I think some people would find that their creativity and drive are seriously hampered by doing ONS. For example, me as a graduate student. I don't know whether doing ONS would have worked or not. I actually kept what I think is a very good electronic lab notebook. But it was private, and I don't know whether I would have taken as many notes (and dropped as many F-bombs) if I knew it was public. I also don't know if I would have reacted well to someone posting a suggestion to me when I was immersed in trying to figure out something by myself. I do know that I would have been fine posting my notebook in public with some time delay. In fact, if anyone posts a comment to this blog asking me to post my grad school notebook in public, I'll go ahead and do that...f-bombs and all.

So, while I don't think I'll require ONS for all lab members, I may have other requirements, such as delayed notebook publishing. What I am worried about is hampering creativity and productivity of young scientists by striving for inappropriately selected open science goals. I do want my students (and postdocs in the future) to strive for open science, but I want them to do it in the way that best leverages their talents.

I am failing at my own principles

"Be as open as I want to be." I and our lab have made some great strides in the past few months towards this principle. For me, I think the transformation was fueled by a strong belief in the power and even morality of open science. But it did take a heavy dose of "what the fuck" to spark the flurry of steps I took this past winter break. (I think that may be my first f-bomb while blogging; I feel alive.) I'm happy and excited about what we're doing. But I'm also not achieving openness as much as I'd like. And I'm confused. Two themes dominate my struggles with openness:
  • The students in my labs and their scientific careers
  • My collaborators, their careers, and my gratitude for their assistance and mentoring
I'm not trying to sound altruistic here. One of my talents is that I get genuine happiness out of feeling like I've helped other people succeed. You can see that both of those items above feed that desire in me. I do think those two items are what is confusing me. In contrast, the issue of being scooped, in itself does not impact my thinking. I do worry about being scooped, but I have already concluded that being open does not increase the chances of being scooped. I believe being open decreases the chances of being accidentally scooped substantially. Furthermore, I even believe that being completely open would reduce the chances of being purposefully scooped. This is because the published track record would make it easier to shame the person who did the scooping.

Being scooped would be emotionally devastating. This is true. And it would have an impact on my lab and my students. This is what my students and I have been discussing the past couple years, and I think we've developed a collective (perhaps unspoken) understanding that we'll be OK even if that does happen. I think I can protect and rescue my students from that scenario. The collaborator issue is so much more complicated.

The collaborator issue is what is bothering me quite a bit now, and I really don't have any answer. Most of the scientists I know personally are "traditional." The ones I am trying to collaborate with are outstanding and highly respected by everyone, including me. The ones I am thinking about right now have put in a huge amount of effort helping me throughout various stages of my career. These traditional scientists, of course, are not Scientists 2.0, but they are fantastic scientists. I suspect, and in some cases directly know, that they would not approve of my science openness. So, I don't know how to deal with this external pressure towards closed science. The "what the fuck" strategy seems so disrespectful to people who've put energy into my career. But the "try to convince" them strategy is futile. "Showing them the way" will work...but at the risk of looking like "what the fuck" along the way and angering them. If we do get scooped, my students and I will be OK. But our mentors may never forgive us?

OK, I'm going to stop now...those are the challenges that are really bothering me this weekend.


  1. Hi, Steve, This is a fascinating, thought-provoking, eloquent rumination. I have just tweeted it.

    This passage is particularly interesting, "I do worry about being scooped, but I have already concluded that being open does not increase the chances of being scooped. I believe being open decreases the chances of being accidentally scooped substantially. Furthermore, I even believe that being completely open would reduce the chances of being purposefully scooped. This is because the published track record would make it easier to shame the person who did the scooping."

  2. Thanks, Hope. Those ideas about scooping have been rolling around in my head since grad school, and I believe in them more as time goes on. Accidental scooping makes me sad for the people it happens too. Intentional scooping makes me furious. (If it's a known competitive race, that's a different story. I'm talking about underhanded stealing of ideas.) Science networking tools should be powerful in preventing accidental scooping.

  3. Hi, Steve. I am not clear on what would constitute accidental scooping. I guess I am a little dense.

  4. It's probably just my lousy terminology. I just mean it's possible to be working on something exciting in competition with someone else without being aware of it. The more openness there is, the less likely this is. I don't have any data in regards to how common this is. I do know personally of several acts of deliberate scooping, which are hideous. It hurts so many people.

  5. Hi, Steve.

    I think you are not alone in your ambivalencies -- American Scientist (2002) published a brief piece with life scientists (geneticists) voicing much the same dilemma, though with the added interest of comparison b/w industry-based and academic-based practitioners: (sorry for using my own page as link; makes it easier to keep track of stuff I have students regularly read!)

  6. Thanks Mickey -- I like that kind of survey. I also checked out your linked user name, and I saw that you have a very useful word doc on writing letters of rec. I think that would be great on a blog or wiki somewhere so people could bookmark it. Have you blogged it somewhere yet?

  7. That's an excellent suggestion, Steve! I am slowly working toward some kind of blogging presence partly so that I can make the stuff I've developed for classes available (the letter of rec doc was actually created for a class where a couple of students had to write their own letters which their PIs would sign off on -- not so strange at a "practitioner" level but rather freaky to an undergraduate!). I would also like the "Synthesizing Sources" one to be more widely available since to my knowledge, this rather obvious strategy is rarely taught to student scientists. Thanks for the support -- makes me feel a bit braver about launching something of my own.

  8. Sup Steve. Took a look at this after reading that article. Nice article! Sounds like you touch on lots of universal principles--feels like if you just change some of the words around, it would sound like something a buddhist monk or philosopher would write. The whole idea of abundance vs. scarcity mentality is a tough one. I find myself having to check myself sometimes when I feel the scarcity/hoarding mentality coming on, 'cause hoarding seems to never pay off. Though being taken advantage of with one's openness/sharing is a risk, the benefits seem to outweigh the risks. I.e., if a person were to really be able to do quality research while being open, she/he would come off as being ridiculously confident, generous, and collaborative--all qualities which seem gain respect from others.

    Anyway, great food for thought. Nice to see a Pioneer alum becoming famous :)

  9. Thanks, Mike! I agree with you, and definitely think the benefits outweigh the risks for me and my students at this point. Not famous, but if I ever do become so, I'll be the first to edit the wikipedia article:

  10. Interesting Pioneer list--had no idea Pioneer was a jock school. Maybe we should put you on there now, if all we got now is hockey players anyway.

  11. Actually this kind of science is more important for us to developed our technology as so more. His personal step should be inspire others people to be interested in science education.

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