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Five problems with doing research in the open

by Michael Nielsen on November 3, 2008

I’m an advocate of extreme openness in doing research. I believe online tools are greatly underused by scientists, and that taking a far more open approach to the sharing of scientific ideas and data is one important step to taking full advantage of those tools.

Although there are great advantages to such openness, there are also many problems. The biggest problems, which I’ve talked about here before, are to do with lack of incentives to share information, and the relatively undeveloped state of online tools. While tools like wikis and blogs are great for some purposes, they’re just not all that well adapted to research.

This post enumerates some of the other problems with extreme openness. None are insurmountable, and none change my belief that extreme openness will be extremely valuable to the progress of science. But they seem worth writing out systematically. In the interests of brevity I’ve concentrated on listing problems, not proposing solutions, although solutions to many come readily to mind.

No-one wants someone looking over their shoulder while they work: As I draft my book, there’s times when I’m best off working away in private, without interruption and distraction, and times when I could really do with some scrutiny. It’s plain irritating and disheartening to be flamed by someone for a flaw in your work that you’re already aware of, and planning to fix. A partial solution is to do research in a low-visibility but essentially open fashion. Many open source projects do this – work on the project is carried out via open but obscure channels (e.g., mailing lists), and then major releases are announced in a high visibility channel.

Conversation doesn’t scale naively: In an ideal world, online tools will connect people with well-matched and complementary expertise. What you see instead in a lot of online conversations is experts “connected” to the rude and uninformed. I don’t know that this brings much benefit to anyone. I think this problem can be solved with improved design of the tools, and improved filtering, but it’s a real problem.

Groupthink: Original thinking that goes against conventional wisdom is not always well rewarded in the open. Commentary is often knee-jerk, rather than constructive. As an example, one of the most original thinkers I know is Robin Hanson; Robin often blogs [1] interesting ideas that contradict conventional wisdom. There’s some great comments on his blog posts, but there’s also a lot of noise, and poorly thought-out responses as people see their sacred cows challenged.

Giving offence: This is really an instance of the previous problem: it’s difficult to develop ideas that may give offense in the open. I don’t think I’d want to write a research article about gun control out in the open.

Ethics and IP concerns: Sometimes, confidentiality may prevent disclosure of data, either for ethical reasons or to protect IP, or both.

[1] Robin is only one of many contributors to that blog, and you may need to scroll down to find some of Robin’s contributions.

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17 Comments
  1. I’m trying to fix the first two problems with my new site http://www.quantumcollaborations.org.

    It’s based on the Elgg platform, which gives users fine-grained access controls, i.e. you can choose exactly which groups of people to share your work with and when. In principle, you could do anything from keeping a private repository of your notes to doing everything completely in the open. In the middle, you can also share things with a trusted group of collaborators.

    The site is only meant to be used by a relatively small group of people, so if you don’t have a clue who I am or you are not working on quantum thingies then it is not the place for you. On the other hand, you can just as easily install your own elgg platform and make the same customizations that I have for your own group of collaborators. Registration is open at the moment, but if things get too hectic I will restrict it to invite only. The site is extremely alpha because I am still in the process of customizing it, but I would certainly welcome anyone who wants to sign up and test it out. I make no guarantees that your user account will be maintained indefinitely or that your work will be safe and secure during the testing phase, so please do not use it for mission critical work at the moment.

  2. Interesting project, Matt, which I’d added to my linklog for the coming week. I don’t know that you really address my concerns, in that you’re trading off openness against points 1 and 2. Still, it’s a nice model.

  3. Thanks for the praise!

  4. Well, I’m not sure that complete openness will ever work for everyone. I’m thinking of things like my collaboration with Howard Barnum at LANL where they want to scrutinize everything before it gets published, including on the web. Having a spectrum of possibilities between complete privacy and complete openness will, I hope, provide a halfway house that will push people further towards openness.

  5. Robin – You’re welcome!

    Matt – Yeah, I agree that the halfway house strategy may be a good one for pushing people toward more openness. I do worry a little that people may get stuck there, but that may be needless worry on my part.

  6. It’s easy to whinge about how complicated this whole Future of Science business is and express pessimism about various dystopian futures. It’s much tougher to be simultaneously realistic and optimistic and prescriptive. I admire Michael very much for hosting one of the few blogs that attempts this synthesis.

    My own working world-view on the future of science and technology reflects (what I take to be) realism and optimism, but I freely confess that the prescriptive aspect is still a mystery to me … and that I am somewhat fearful of it.

    To adopt a thermodynamic analogy from cosmology, the expansion of the universe of science and technology has slowed, because traditional research enterprises are no longer releasing enough free energy (of some loosely-defined economic and cognitive variety) to power continued expansion.

    As a result, our present universe of science and technology universe has become supercooled, and therefore, is now ripe for nucleation events. These nucleation events (metaphorically speaking) are phase changes whose accompanying release of free energy powers a new eras of expansion.

    In this analogy, today’s “inflaton field” is the traditional style of hypothesis-driven research and peer-reviewed publication. This field is destined to condense into some sort of new science and technology enterprise. In fact, this nucleation-and-condensation process has already begun, with enterprises like the Arxiv server, the SDSS, Google, HGP, etc.

    What will science look like after the phase transition is complete? Hmmm … no one knows … perhaps it could be any of 10^500 different models (as in some string models). In other words, the selection of a new phase may well occur by processes that are informatically, cognitively, anthropologically, and economically nondeterministic … and that’s where the prescriptive challenge comes in.

    Will we therefore have to exercise free will in determining the future of science? For any student of history (or elections, or faculty committees), that is a mighty scary prospect. šŸ™‚

    It is (probably) good news that ongoing science and technology phase changes are unleashing plenty of free energy … because our planet urgently needs the new resources that this free energy release (potentially) represents.

    In any case, like it or not, these science and technology phase changes are irreversibly underway, and the new universe will look very different from our old universe.

    To exert any influence upon these changes, Michael may have to finish his book pretty soon … and perhaps write more than one book … both of which I hope he does! šŸ™‚

  7. Michael,

    I don’t think people will get stuck just because access controls are available. Having a safety blanket of privacy controls was one of the reasons I felt comfortable joining Facebook, but I never actually use them, and I don’t think many other people do either. I think things like Cameron Neylon’s story will be more typical, where people realize that it is just easier to work completely in the open than to fret about access controls.

    On the other hand, maybe I’m not as much of an extreme openness advocate as you are, as I still think I’ll be using access controls for some of my crazier projects.

  8. This is an important topic, and I wish more folks were posting on it.

    Mainly to stimulate some discussion, I will observe that the openness-related issues that Michael raises differ mainly in degree, not in kind, from issues that previous generations of scientists and engineers have faced.

    As evidence, consider this fifty-year-old essay from Time Magazine (Monday, Apr. 29, 1957 edition) titled The New Age:

    The house was like none ever built before. Its roof was a honeycomb of tiny solar cells that used the sun’s rays to heat the house and furnish all the electric power … The TV set hung like a picture, flat against the wall. … The radio was only as big as a golf ball. … The telephone was a movie-like screen that projected both the caller’s image and voice. … New companies need little equipment or capital, but they need plenty of brainpower … In Los Angeles, a new electronics plant is built every fortnight … Some day soon, big computers will be reduced to the size of a shoe box and sell for several hundred dollars.

    Sound familiar? šŸ™‚

    My point is that the above 1950s narrative was both technically accurate (within reasonable expectation) and (equally importantly) it served an important social function. Namely, it provided an (highly imperfect yet functionally necessary) shared prescriptive narrative.

    To summarize, widely embraced narratives like Time Magazine’s constituted (loosely speaking) a popular-culture Federalist Papers of the electronic revolution.

    AFAICT, no similarly prescriptive technological and social narratives presently exist. Perhaps Michael’s book(s) will suggest some!

  9. John – If you didn’t already know, it may amuse you to learn that Robert Boyle’s first publication (1641) was about the need for much more openness in science. I haven’t been able to track a copy down. It was one of many calls for more openness at the time. Stanford’s Paul David has written some interesting stuff on the early history of openness in science and technology – I don’t have a reference to hand, but it’s easy to Google.

  10. Michael, thank you for the pointer to Paul David’s work, with which I was completely unfamiliar … this will (hopefully) be remedied over Christmastime.

    Robert Boyle’s contemporary Pierre Bayle is worth studying too—both investigators have fine Wikipedia articles—because the energy released by the dovetailing of their two schools of thought helped nucleate the phase-transition that today we call “The Enlightenment”, from whose continued expansion scientists and engineers (and everyone else too) still benefit today (to adopt a physics metaphor).

    But paradoxically, it may be that the most valuable work I can share with you (and everyone reading this blog) is not the best “future of science” essay ever written, but rather a contender for the worst “future of science” essay ever written.

    This would be engineer Samuel Florman’s 2003 The Aftermath: A Novel of Survival.

    An essay on why Florman’s novel is widely viewed as being “beyond bad” (as one Amazon reviewer put it) would be just as interesting (to me at least) as an essay on why Florman’s justly-acclaimed The Existential Pleasures of Engineering is good.

    What’s in the middle, quality-wise? Norbert Wiener’s surprisingly good (IMHO) novel The Tempter.

    The point being (if there is a point) that for several centuries, many people who contemplate the future of science and engineering have been motivated to construct narratives about this future … in other words, have been motivated to describe not just noble goals, but also, to prescribe realistic and exciting paths to achieving those goals … which I hope hereby to encourage you, Michael, to attempt also!

    Because if not you, then who?

  11. I guess this is part of “No-one wants someone looking over their shoulder while they work” but I often find myself thinking about doing some science in the open but the actual idea I’m thinking about work on is…well…it is a stupid idea. There is such a huge currency in academia for not looking stupid that it keeps me from not carrying forward. Maybe this is just my own barrier (since I’m a trillion times slower than those around me), but every time I think about doing a project in the open this comes up.

  12. Dave – I’m guessing that problem will disappear as it becomes common to work in the open, and everyone realizes that everyone else makes mistakes and does silly things routinely.

  13. Dave – Iā€™m guessing that problem [of shyness regarding disparities in talent] will disappear as it becomes common to work in the open, and everyone realizes that everyone else makes mistakes and does silly things routinely.

    Whew … Michael … doesn’t every-day experience teach us that in almost every sphere of human endeavor, the exact opposite is true?

    My own field of medicine is a good example. Trauma surgery is taught by Osler-style methods of open immersive apprenticeship. This means that every aspect of trauma surgery is done completely openly … nothing is hidden … because the the greatest trauma surgeons operate with residents (literally) looking over their shoulder every single minute of every single case.

    In other words, trauma surgery is already learned by methods that Michael would regard as utopian in their whole-hearted commitment to openness. Not just in principle, but in living daily reality.

    The result, however, is the exact opposite of Michael’s idea that “everyone realizes that everyone else makes mistakes and does silly things routinely.”

    Instead, trauma surgery residents swiftly realize, from the unimpeachable evidence of their own eyes, that top-level trauma surgeons almost never make mistakes and definitely never do silly things routinely.

    The possibility thus exists—it is almost a certainty in my opinion—that increasing openness in science will cause the culture of science to resemble more closely the culture of trauma surgery.

    Would this be a good thing, or a bad thing? In either case, the results almost certainly (IMHO) will not be the results what most proponents of open science foresee or advocate.

    By the way, I am a huge fan of Osler-style methods of open immersive apprenticeship, and I definitely support Michael’s idea that science (and math and engineering) would benefit from being taught this way … my opinion as to the likely results differs from Michael’s mainly because of my intimate personal experience in observing the effects of these methods when put into daily practice.

  14. John, please don’t ascribe opinions to me unless I’ve explicitly stated them. I don’t regard the “openness” you describe as especially utopian. A much closer comparison to what I have in mind is open source programming. As regards perfection, good science (and good programming) is quite different from surgery. I’ve never known a good scientist who didn’t have lots of bad ideas. A surgeon who made mistakes as often would be sued to oblivion and back.

  15. Michael, I definitely apologize … my choice of phrase “would regard as utopian” was bad … the alternative “might perhaps regard as utopian” would not have been much better … perhaps the safest thing, for me at leasi, is to wait until your book is complete.

    I confess to being very curious as to whether The Future of Science will include a prescriptive element (as William Osler’s writings on the future of medicine, for example, always did).

    As I told Dave Bacon yesterday, when it comes to predicting the future, I personally belong to the philosophical school of Terminator 2 … meaning, the school that believes that there is a huge element of free will in the future of science, and therefore a central role for prescriptive elements in all serious attempts to foresee that future.

    Because after all, who would wish to read a vision of future science that comprised a dreary catalogue of every possible future, most of which are—let’s face it—dismayingly dystopian? (although there is a wonderfully prescient 1955 essay by von Neumann titled Can We Survive Technology that is amounts to just such a catalogue).

    Today’s physicians appreciate that William Osler did medicine an wonderful service by setting forth an explicitly prescriptive vision of the future of medicine … a vision that included an explicit commitment to openness in education and in practice.

    So please accept, as a signifier of my optimism and respect, my hope that you (and other writers too) may accomplish the same wonderful service for the future of science.

    Good luck, and please write fast! šŸ™‚

  16. Hi John, thanks for the apology. No worries, as we say in Australia.

    On the prescriptive element: I don’t like to think of it as prescriptive – the way I use it, that word is a bit too controlling for my taste – but I am certainly trying to lay out a vision of what I think is possible, if certain choices are made. In the end, I’m guessing that what I’m aiming for is what you’d call prescriptive. Of course, much of the book is descriptive and explanatory, as well; if it were not, the vision would not be grounded in reality.

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