"Science 2.0" is good for all of us

Scientific American is running an article on "Science 2.0," examining the such initiatives as MIT's OpenWetWare that allow researchers to post all results, successes, failures, etc.

Scientific American is running an article on "Science 2.0," examining the such initiatives as MIT's OpenWetWare that allow researchers to post all results, successes, failures, etc., on the Web as they happen. This is in contrast to the nearly secretive nature in which research has been conducted before the advent of Wikis, blogs, and easy content management that allows researchers at all levels to share their findings both with peers and with larger communities.

While many researchers have resisted this movement (some, for example, who might be testing medications or treatments for disease have obvious financial incentives to keep results confidential), many are finding that this sort of openness actually improves the quality of their research.

“Science happens not just because of people doing experiments but because they’re discussing those experiments,” explains Christopher Surridge, managing editor of the Web-based journal Public Library of Science On-Line Edition (www.plosone.org). Critiquing, suggesting, sharing ideas and data—this communication is the heart of science, the most powerful tool ever invented for correcting errors, building on colleagues’ work and fashioning new knowledge. Although the classic peer-reviewed paper is important, says Surridge, who publishes a lot of them, “they’re effectively just snapshots of what the authors have done and thought at this moment in time. They are not collaborative beyond that, except for rudimentary mechanisms such as citations and letters to the editor.”

MIT's OpenWetWare, for example, has been particularly successful. Growing out of a simple wiki started by two graduate students to keep lab websites up to date, the website began to incorporate lab manuals, best practices, and how-tos. More importantly, as graduate students and researchers discovered new techniques in the labs, they posted them to the wiki, allowing their collaborators, as well as peers around the world, to benefit from their experience.

The NSF has now provided MIT with funding to develop a more generalizable version of OpenWetWare that could be applied at other universities.

OpenWetWare, and other efforts that exploit Web 2.0 technologies, are a significant boon to the entire scientific community. As the authors of the Scientific American article point out,

After all, since the time of Galileo and Newton, scientists have built up their knowledge about the world by “crowdsourcing” the contributions of many researchers and then refining that knowledge through open debate. “Web 2.0 fits so perfectly with the way science works. It’s not whether the transition will happen but how fast.”