Open Notebook Science

Science 2.0: Great New Tool, or Great Risk?: Scientific American

M. Mitchell Waldrop’s excellent introduction to “open notebook” science in Scientific American fits nicely with some of the work we’re doing to support the Charles Center’s initiative on expanding undergraduate research at the College. My class last semester helped plan a web site that will help students in all disciplines make the process of their research more open and transparent. The site will use a series of Web 2.0 tools to build a community among students at William and Mary who are actively engaged in research.

Most students get lots of exposure to the end products of scholarly work, but they are much less likely get much exposure to complexities of producing that scholarly work. As Ron Gross noted in The Independent Scholar’s Guide:

Rarely do researchers or writers “let their hair down,” revealing that they started where each of us must start: with mere infatuation for a subject… Established researchers rarely portray the faltering steps by which they came to pinpoint their purposes, chose their subject, sharpen their skills. By the time the work of the scholar or scientist comes to our attention, it is usually well packaged as a finished monograph, a carefully-crafted article, a well-honed paper, a polished book, a museum worthy collection or display, a documentary on film or videotape, or as some other finished work. This final project seems to have sprung full-grown from the author’s head. So we get a misleading picture of how intellectual and creative projects get started.
Gross, Independent Scholar’s Guide, Introduction to Chapter Two: From Messy Beginnings to Finished Product

In open-notebook science, blogs, wikis, and social networking tools provide a way to share the everyday decisions that shape an actual research project–both the successes and the failures. Scholarly papers offer clear views of what has been accomplished, but generally don’t provide much insight into the things that didn’t work. Often those details are precisely the ones that can jump-start the work of other scientists, making the whole research process more productive and efficient. The OpenWetWare initiative at MIT, for example, has expanded well beyond its beginnings as a few graduate students refining protocols for getting DNA cultures to grow:

In short, OpenWetWare has quickly grown into a social network catering to a wide cross-section of biologists and biological engineers. It currently encompasses laboratories on five continents, dozens of courses and interest groups, and hundreds of protocol discussions–more than 6100 Web pages edited by 3,000 registered users.

The article raises some interesting issues for institutions that are trying to expand undergraduate research. Timo Hannay, head of Web publishing at the Nature Publishing Group summarizes his vision of scholarly publishing in a way that fits nicely with our goals for the technology integration program:

Our real mission isn’t to publish journals, but to facilitate scientific communication,” he says. “We’ve recognized that the Web can completely change the way that communication happens.” Among the efforts are Nature Network, a social network designed for scientists; Connotea, a social bookmarking site patterned on the popular site, but optimized for the management of research references; and even an experiment in open peer review, with pre-publication manuscripts made available for public comment.

Waldrop has posted the article in Scientific American’s Edit This section where readers get to collaborate with the author in giving the story its final form.