Science on Blogspot

The Open Science and Research initiative, which I work for, held a seminar today. The most inspiring part of the program was a panel, which discussed how researchers could be engaged into opening their work and what kind of skills and support they need in order to do that. One of the speakers was Samuli Ollila who conducts an ultra open research project on, out of all the possible platforms, Blogspot (WordPress’ auto-correct just suggested “bloodspot”). I guess Blogspot is just as good a medium as any, I just personally associate it with lifestyle blogs and such. I for one wrote a pastry blog on Blogspot for about a year (I’m NOT going to link it here, that’s where I draw the line with openness). Samuli’s blog is titled “Matching lipid force fields with NMR data“, and quoting that is all I’m going to say about it’s content, which is way off my field of expertise and understanding.

The way Samuli’s project works is that anyone can contribute via commenting. When the research is published all of those who have given their input in the comments will be listed as co-authors. There are risks to this kind of approach, mainly whether journals will accept the article, since all of the results have already been openly reported on the blog. It will be an important precedent, what ever the end-result will be. When I talked to Samuli after the seminar he didn’t seem too stressed though. His view was that new results will always be recognised, one way or the other. He presented some pretty radical views about academic publishing in the panel discussion. According to him the scientific community should move past publishing and just focus on producing knowledge. To me that sound at the same time logical, considering the long-term goals of the open science movement, and pure madness. No articles? But how will you know that your work is done (or done enough), if not by finishing an article? How will you be able to experience that cathartic feeling you get after pressing the “send” button two minutes before the deadline? So in order to get there it wouldn’t suffice to just get rid of Elsevier and co., we’d also need to get rid of a deep rooted mindset and a way of organising scientific work, especially in the humanities. Opening publishings and data is to many radical enough, so burying the article as a format must sound practically blasphemous.

I opened up to Samuli and some other members of the panel, who had gathered for drinks after the event, about how frightening opening one’s research can feel in the beginning. I told them my fear of being ridiculed and critiqued, to which they very wisely pointed out that that it is actually one of the many benefits of open research process. Yes, being ridiculed early on in a research process can be a good thing when it means that you find the faults in your work at a stage when correcting them is easy, vs. right before popping the champagne to celebrate your doctoral thesis being finished. One of the panelists had experience (not personal) of the latter happening. So now, after hearing that story, I think I will be more scared if I end up getting no critical comments at all…

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3 thoughts on “Science on Blogspot

  1. Pingback: Research integrity in the open era | THE HONEST BROKER

  2. Thanks for pointing out our work. It should noted, however, that nmrlipids.blogspot.fi it is not only mine blog. It is a project of all participants, which has started from the inititative of myself and
    Markus Miettinen (however, I have done the largest contribution for the project).

    It should be also noted that not all the commentors will be listed as authors, only the ones who think themselves that they have done significant scientific contribution to the manuscript. Our authorhips policy can be found from here:
    http://nmrlipids.blogspot.fi/2013/07/on-credits.html

    Also this post may be interesting for the readers of this blog:
    http://nmrlipids.blogspot.fi/2013/09/why-not-submit-to-journal.html
    The post gives some reasons why I think that the current publication
    system is old fashioned.

    In this comment I present also a simple and practical example why I think we should have some kind of modifiable documents to progress science, instead of freezed articles.

    In good and honest scientific literature, it is very common to have sections
    with the following structure:

    We have observed X. Due to this observation we can rule out ideas A and B, however ideas
    C, D and E are still possible with the currently available information.

    Now, if there is a reader of this article who has information that rules out C and D options, the only possible explanation left is E. In my mind this is pure example of scientific progress. In the current publication system, the author with additional information can write an independent publication to inform also others that the explanation E seems to be the correct idea. In practise, writing full article is time consuming, and it might take time before people notice this new information. Also, people reading the first article will not be automatically aware of the new progess, since future articles cannot be cited in the current system.

    If we would have a system where modification of articles (or some documents containing the state of the art information of things) would be possible, the authors with additional knowledge could open up a discussion that maybe the original article (or document) should be modified to state that the explanation E is the best. Once there is reasonable agreement among experts (compare to the peer review system), the modification of the article could be done.

    I believe that this kind of system could be more effective in progressing science than the current system. This kind of system could be also technically implemented nowdays with moderate effort.

    To show that this is not only a theoretical exercise, I am describing here a practical example where
    the hyphotetical publication system could be used (this gets technical but it might be possible to follow)

    Among other things Roberts et al. write in Biophysical Journal
    (vol. 97, p. 132 (2009), dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.bpj.2009.03.057)

    “These changes in both rPH (lengthened) and qPH (angle increased) are statistically
    significant and suggest
    1), a real alteration in phospholipid average headgroup
    geometry in the presence of cholesterol;
    2), a further uncoupling of the polar headgroup motions
    from the phosphorus such that they no longer have much
    contribution to R1; or
    3), a breakdown in the rigid body model
    for phospholipid motion in a bilayer such that the phosphate
    unit is partially uncoupled from the glycerol/acyl chain
    behavior in a way that reduces the effectiveness of the glycerol
    C(3) proton dipolar interactions.

    At this time, we cannot decide which of these possibilities is correct”

    Now, the results reported in the phd thesis of Tiago Ferreira
    (Lund University, lup.lub.lu.se/record/3878850/file/3879121.pdf (2013))
    suggest that the option 3) discussed by Roberts et al. is the correct explanation
    for their results.

    In the current system, this kind of small but progressive observations are tedious to publish and those will not be notified in the original work and, thus can be missed by the reader. In the modifiable publication model this kind of contributions could be included more efficiently, and I believe that the cumulation of this kind of pieces of information is one of the key elements in scientific discovery.

    Samuli Ollila

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for your comment, Samuli, and apologies for not responding earlier. I completely agree with you, at least as long as we are talking about science in the narrower sense, leaving out humanities. I’m not saying that discussion couldn’t exist there without the journals and articles, but that need for change isn’t as dire. The humanities rely more on narratives and subjective views, so the act of constructing an article (or until recently most often a monograph) has been more closely tied to the research process, not just a necessary evil.

      I just read a piece in The Guardian about the 350th anniversary of the Philosophical Transactions, the oldest scientific journal there is (http://www.theguardian.com/science/political-science/2015/apr/04/after-350-years-of-academic-journals-its-time-to-shake-things-up). According to the article researchers waste 15 million person-hours a year on unpublished submissions to journals. It is obvious to me that the system is broken and the question isn’t really will the norm change into the direction you described, but rather how soon (well, I don’t really think the transition will be phenomenally speedy, but it will be inevitable).

      Like

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