Tuesday, November 22, 2011

An idea for wealthy donors: alternative to direct research funding: fund libraries to help with e-research

Next week, I am attending the E-Science Institute Capstone event, along with Rob Olendorf and Dale Hendrickson from U. New Mexico Libraries.  As part of our preparation for this event, we are interviewing several people around the university to capture their views on e-research.  Today, Rob and I interviewed Martha Bedard, Dean of the UNM Libraries.  Rob and Dale figured it would be good to have me lead the interview, since I'm coming from outside of the library and thus would ask different questions.  At least from my perspective, this was a success and I learned a lot in the generous one hour of time that Martha gave us.

At this point, I can't share the interview notes publicly, but I did want to share one idea that emerged during our discussion (and there were several good ideas!).  I'm having trouble getting the idea in writing so maybe by poorly blogging it, someone else can turn it into a good idea, if it's sensible at all.  Here's what I'm thinking: wealthy donors, or a group of donors that want to make a big impact on research at their university have at least the following two choices:

1.  Provide substantial money to fund research in a specific field, for example by providing 10's million dollars to fund a nanomedicine research center.  Or to build a new biomedical engineering building.  Etc.

2.  Provide substantial money (say $10 million) to the university library in order to vastly improve the ability of ALL researchers at the university to conduct e-research.  The money would go towards hiring many new library faculty and staff members and procuring and implementing storage and networking infrastructure.  The goal would be a completely transformed library that would make it easy and almost automatic for all university researchers to conduct connected, networked, open, archived, discoverable, etc. research.

Option 1 is common and makes a big impact on specific research fields.  Performing research in excellent facilities, with dependable funding is a great thing for researchers.  As far as I know, option 2 is less common, and I'm not aware of a good example.  But I think there'd be tremendous leverage compared to option 1.  The reason there is so much leverage is because currently the huge potential of "e-research" remains almost untapped.  There are shining examples of successes.  (For an excellent overview of the successes and the vast, untapped potential, read Michael Nielsen's excellent book.)  But in reality, for most researchers it's really difficult to manage data, share data, provide open access publications, etc.  And this is true even for researchers like me, who've decided to be as open as possible yet are finding it difficult to do so effectively!  So, it's basically true that there are huge technical barriers for most of the researchers to maximize the impact of their research by sharing.  Because we're so bad at it and because it's so difficult, I think there's a ton of room to make a huge impact at a university with a medium-sized grant.  I think the uinversity library is the natural and only choice to lead the effort.  And by doing so, it would impact all of the researchers across all of the disciplines (humanities, science, medicine, etc.).  How would they implement option #2?  I don't actually know, and that's a big reason why I want the library to do it!  Rob Olendorf, my collaborator at UNM on open data projects has a vision for how to make it seamless and almost automatic for researchers like me to connect, archive, and share our research and data.  I don't understand how that can work, and I don't have time to understand.  But I would LOVE to participate in that system.

That's the final key to the idea.  I think a university would gain a huge competitive advantage by becoming the "e-research leader."  There is a perception that most researchers are content with limited sharing and the status quo.  This may or may not be true.  But regardless, it looks like there is a lot of momentum, driven by the public interest, for funding agencies to go much further with data sharing, data management, open data mandates.  These mandates are scary to many researchers.  Even if researchers want to have excellent data management and share their data, it's almost impossible to do so now.  So, compliance will be a huge and new headache for researchers.  If a university could boast that compliance is "seamless and easy" it would be a real and strong recruitment incentive.  This probably sounds questionable to some, but I really see it as a huge incentive.  It would be just as appealing as the opportunity to work in a fancy new research facility.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

The inevitable spread of open science

Two things have happened this week that make me really happy about the research in our lab and the spread of open science.  First, we have a new undergraduate REU student, Alex Haddad, who has started her own open notebook science under the mentorship of Anthony Salvagno.  Her notebook is on wordpress.com and can be found here.  This is Alex's first experience in a research lab and she has immediately embraced open notebook science and she is excited about it.  One cool thing that I've noticed already is that her notebook entries are automatically linked in Anthony's notebook when she links to them.  Some kind of trackback thingy that I don't understand, but is great as far as good notebooks go.  An example can be found in Anthony's notebook entry, which automatically links to Alex's entry providing more information (see the trackback at the bottom of the page).  Welcome, Alex, to open notebook science!

The second thing that happened is that our former PhD student, Andy Maloney, just started a new postdoc at UT-Austin with Hugh Smyth.  This is going to be a very productive experience for both Andy and Hugh's lab, I am confident.  Most excitingly, though, is that Andy and Hugh have decided to incorporate open science into their projects!  I think this is very big news and a success for the spread of open science.  Major props to both Andy and Hugh for their willingness to carry out major parts of their research using open science!  I had some further thoughts on this and the implications for the spread of open science.  Instead of re-writing them, I'll just quote my comments on the FriendFeed thread:

I think big factors are Andy's commitment to open science and his new PI's commitment to making an impact in science and medicine.  I met Hugh Smyth a few times when he was at UNM and only detected awesomeness, both in his research and in his mentoring and concern for students.  Openness is probably going to be more challenging for them, though.  One reason is their research is much more applied and medical, and thus IP plays a major role.  The field is probably a lot more competitive.  And their lab is much more successful with funding.  As Nielsen and others have pointed out, the current reward system stacks the cards against openness.  So they will have to be careful.  But I think they're clever enough to figure out how to do it, and their success will pave a lot of roads for future openness.  I've been thinking about it pseudo-mathematically and I think the fact that they're even willing to try is a success.  I've had two PhD students graduate so far.  One is likely in industry for a long time and unlikely to be open for a long time if ever.  The other, Andy, is now at least partially doing open science.  The subsequent students in our lab (Anthony, Alex, Nadia, Pranav) are still performing open science.  A former intern, Diego Ramallo Pardo is in grad school at Stanford and has a passion for openness, but not able to be open yet.  Dozens of undergraduate lab students have performed open notebook science in my lab course, and there have been a few instances of continuing ONS after the course (most do not continue in research careers).  So, at first glance it appears that there isn't a high rate of spread of openness from our research and teaching labs.  But it occurs to me that it doesn't matter.  If we were to model openness as an infection, it's a powerful one.  I think it's even a latent infection in almost all scientists.  Participating in openness awakens the infection for life and it sheds constantly.  The immune reaction is our current system of practicing and rewarding science and it's quite powerful.  So it wins in a lot of cases.  Nevertheless, openness is slowly winning more often and the immune system is not going to adapt to get stronger.  On the contrary, the immune system is going to take major hits in the coming years.  Funding agencies are going to change rules.  Tenure and Promotion and hiring committees are going to add members who value openness.  Closed-access publishing for profit is going to topple precipitously.  And at that point, openness will spread and emerge naturally and quickly.  It seems plain as day to me.  Now, one of you all can translate that into epidemiological mathematics and fiddle with some exponents.
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