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Reinventing Discovery

by Michael Nielsen on October 9, 2011

I’m very excited to say that my new book, “Reinventing Discovery: The New Era of Networked Science”, has just been released!

The book is about networked science: the use of online tools to transform the way science is done. In the book I make the case that networked science has the potential to dramatically speed up the rate of scientific discovery, not just in one field, but across all of science. Furthermore, it won’t just speed up discovery, but will actually amplify our collective intelligence, expanding the range of scientific problems which can be attacked at all.

But, as I explain in the book, there are cultural obstacles that are blocking networked science from achieving its full potential. And so the book is also a manifesto, arguing that networked science must be open science if it is to realize its potential.

Making the change to open science is a big challenge. In my opinion it’s one of the biggest challenges our society faces, one that requires action on many fronts. One of those fronts is to make sure that everyone — including scientists, but also grant agencies, governments, libraries, and, especially, the general public -– understands how important the stakes are, and how urgent is the need for change. And so my big hope for this book is that it will help raise the profile of open science. I want open science to become a part of our general culture, a subject every educated layperson is familiar with, and has an opinion about. If we can cause that to happen, then I believe that a big and positive shift in the culture of science is inevitable. And that will benefit everyone.

The book is shipping in hardcover from, and should ship through other booksellers by October 21. Note that the Kindle edition isn’t out as I write, but should arrive by October 21. A few relevant links:

Two caveats. First, I’m occasionally asked if the book is being released under a Creative Commons license. I discussed this option at length with my publisher, who ultimately declined. A couple of people have said to me that they find this ironic. This isn’t so, since the book argues as a broad principle that publicly funded science should be open science; the book is neither publicly funded nor, strictly speaking, science. However, as a personal preference I’d still like to see it enter the commons sooner rather than later. After the paperback has been out for a while, I will approach my publisher again to see what can be done.

Second, the book is not meant to be a reference work on open science. Instead, I’ve highlighted a small set of focused examples, inevitably leaving many great open science projects out. I hope the people running those other projects can forgive me. My aim wasn’t to write a reference work, but rather to write the kind of book that people will enjoy reading, and which enthusiasts of open science can give to their friends and family to help explain what open science is all about, and why it matters so very much.

Let me conclude by quoting one of my favorite lines from Tolkien: “The praise of the praiseworthy is above all reward”. And so it gives me great delight to finish with quotes from a few of the endorsements and reviews the book has received:

Science has always been a contact sport; the interaction of many minds is the engine of the discipline. Michael Nielsen has given us an unparalleled account of how new tools for collaboration are transforming scientific practice. Reinventing Discovery doesn’t just help us understand how the sciences are changing, it shows us how we can participate in the change. – Clay Shirky

This is the book on how networks will drive a revolution in scientific discovery; definitely recommended. – Tyler Cowen

Anyone who has followed science in recent years has noticed something odd: science is less and less about a solitary scientist working alone in a lab. Scientists are working in networks, and those networks are gaining scope, speed, and power through the internet. Nonscientists have been getting in on the act, too, folding proteins and identifying galaxies. Michael Nielsen has been watching these developments too, but he’s done much more: he’s provided the best synthesis I’ve seen of this new kind of science, and he’s also thought deeply about what it means for the future of how we understand the world. Reinventing Discovery is a delightfully written, thought-provoking book. – Carl Zimmer

Reinventing Discovery will frame serious discussion and inspire wild, disruptive ideas for the next decade. – Chris Lintott in Nature

Nielsen has created perhaps the most compelling and comprehensive case so far for a new approach to science in the Internet age. – Timo Hannay in Nature Physics

  1. Patrick Darmon permalink

    Reinventing discovery is truly a important essay on the potential of massive collaboration in science. Having read that, any scientist – or science amateur – should reasonably see some way to improve the process of scientific discovery assuming, and that’s a big part of the book, that mindsets an d organizations evolve that way.

    I see nevertheless three objections on network science that I did not see adressed in the book :
    – Network effects : any network initiative generate network effects (at the end of the day there should remain 1-2 hubs for massive collaboration at least for any science) that should – probably limlits the “openess” of the system as a whole
    – Privatization of science : publish or perish is not the only enemy … the fact that private organization such as IBM or Google are increasingly involved in scientific research is a limit to open science or at the very least to its impacts. For more see Mirowski always relevant analysis (
    – China : given the geopolitical context and current paranoïa about China – I won’t argue about it’s relevance since it is beyond the point – I wonder about the possibilities to open science beyond subjects such as the example of the book : pure math or astrophysics… that bear little – direct – impact on the economy or on the strategic position of the Unitd States …

    Michael, any opinion about that ?

  2. Michael Nielsen permalink

    Hi Patrick,

    Thanks for the kind words and interesting questions.

    On network effects: no, there don’t need to be one or two hubs. You can get network effects with open standards, not just hubs. Compare the web as a whole (open standards) versus Facebook (a hub), say. With that said, even the open standard can become a single point of failure, as people remain committed to it, despite the availability of better standards. The second half of my book is arguing against the lock-in we currently have to what is essentially an open standard (journal publication), when we could be creating better standards. I do worry that we can then become locked in again, and I’ve written about this elsewhere (e.g., in my essay “The Mismeasurement of Science”.)

    Privatization of science: I don’t share your concern, since I don’t see anything to suggest that private participation in long-term basic research is rising at an especially rapid rate, contrary to your claim. In general, general, I have no problem with private research not being open. (There are specific cases, of course, where I do have concerns, and I think it’s a bad mistake to blur the lines between public and private, as has been the impact of Bayh-Dole and similar legislation). But the book is arguing that publicly funded science should be open science. Given that there is about 100 billion dollars of public money poured into science each year, that would be an enormous change.

    Whether open science is applicable beyond pure math and astrophysics: I give examples in biology, medicine, paleontology, and many other areas. So, yes, I certainly think it’s applicable.

  3. I started reading the book yesterday, I really like it so far! Thanks!

  4. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. I fully share with you the obstruction the current very profitable academic publishing system sets out. To change the systems we have to change the credit system. Currently, the first mark a young scientist makes in the science community is a first author publication (in the life science usually be the age of 27 or older) in a scientific journal. 2nd, 3rd, or other authorships are not counted. In networked science credits should go to teams not first authors as long as it is evident what each individual contributed. Therefore we need mico-references not references to entire papers. The second element missing is an authorID that is a unique identifier for all of a scientists scientific contributions (blogs, papers, reviews, tweets etc). If such authorIDs existed all the contributions of an individual (comments on papers originating from journal club discussions etc) could be appreciated long before his/her first first author paper. It would make science more attractive and more just.

    Unique authorIDs and micro-references that can be cited and rated would contribute to a more open and networked science.

  5. You should make this into an audiobook 😀

    Super excited to read this.

  6. Nevermind haha, you can delete that last comment :p. Saw a link to this post on twitter just now, didn’t realize it’s been out for so long. (with an audiobook already available too, woohoo!) Very excited to read it.

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