Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Reinventing Discovery, Part II

This is the second part of my review of Michael Nielsen's book "Reinventing Discovery - The New Era of Networked Science" (first part is here). Last time we talked about Galaxy Zoo, the Polymath Project, and why scientists don't (usually) do Wikis.  This time I'd like to focus on the book parts which talk about ArXiv

First of all, I have to say I've been using ArXiv extensively lately as part of the ACUMEN project, trying to figure out who and what can be found there. The place is a bit of a mess - it's not Pubmed - but it still left me in awe, because not only that most of the astronomers I've searched had papers there, most of them contributed at least one of the papers themselves (you can see who submitted the paper). 

ArXiv comes with a service called SPIRES (now inSPIRE) which can tell you how many times a paper was cited, who's citing who, and so forth. This way, it's possible to measure at least some of the impact of preprints (if you're a high-energy physicist). So, not only ArXiv makes the scientific communication faster, it also helps evaluate the impact of this kind of communication more accurately. 

Unfortunately, not everybody gives ArXiv the honor it deserves. Nielsen tells how when he was writing the book, a physicist told him that Paul Ginsparg, ArXiv's creator, was wasting his talent on "collecting garbage", reflecting a disregard certain scientists have for "mere" tool builders. I don't know if this attitude is common in the scientific community, but it's discouraging nonetheless. 

Open Access can be problematic 
Citizen science isn't always all that - in the Polymath Project, there were people with good intentions but not much knowledge, their contributions didn't have much value to the project and had to essentially filtered out. 

Misinformation - premature publications , especially in fields the mainstream media takes interest in, can spread far and wide, confuse the general public and discredit research projects in the eyes of the public. 

How we can be more open (if you're reading this, you probably don't need these suggestions). 
In the last few pages of the book, Nielsen suggests practical steps toward open science. A scientist can upload old data, code, etc. online for reuse (be sure to tell people how to cite it!); He/she can open a blog, contribute to other people's open science projects, or try to create a new one. Nielsen advises to "be generous in giving other scientists credit when they share their scientific knowledge in new ways" which I think is an excellent advice, even though the formatting and style guides are a bit behind the times when it comes to social media. 

All in all, Reinventing discovery is a great book, however, I was a little disappointed to find only a small section dedicated to science blogs. The author explains that he had enough of the hype around blogging and that he doesn't want "to cover that well-trodden ground again", but I think the book could have benefited from a few more pages about the subject (yes, I know I'm not very objective here...). Also, though the book deals with - and recommends - open access, it isn't under Creative Commons licence (you can read why here). 

Nielsen, Michael (2011). Reinventing Discovery Princeton University Press Other: 9780691148908


  1. I am a big fan of Arvix. As a citizen sci guy, (i am working with some other folks on yahoo, trying to figure out how to mine asteroids) it is really tough to find ANY solid science without having a lot of subscriptions. Arvix has lots of info on interplanetary geology, dust, comet stuff and materials science that is great for figuring out how stuff is put together.

    There is so much info in NASA and JPL libraries, but it is spread out in so many places, you can't find it unless you are going to conventions and working daily with the databases. Even if you luck out and drill down thru a NASA website, you usually just find press releases, not actual info. Usually the best info comes out in interviews with scientists, where they discuss how they DIDN'T find what they were looking for, but that info never shows up in the factoids of the new paper they put out to explain the unexpected findings.

    I am still really dismayed how so many astronomers are still writing so many esoteric papers on subjects that still don't have a solid foundation. A lot of things are stacked upon wobbly, old ideas, and no one wants to go back and try and shore up the basics. Guess it isn't sexy sci to redo the old experiments.

    I mean, how can comets have methane in them if it is of biological origin? I just saw my first paper where a Japanese crew finally figured out how to convert CO2 to methane with a catalyst, but how can we base all of disc accretion sci on these and other dichotomy's?

    Since i am studying asteroids and comets, disc accreation theory just keeps becoming more unlikely, but no one actually try's to find a different path.
    I mean, they have to do so many outlandish math models to overcome centripetal force, and other orbital mechanics. molecular formation temperature problems, where all the water comes from, and why it is all gone when they go looking for it.

    It is also verboten to talk about plasma cosmology, and it's alternate view of cosmology.
    Just because a couple nuts push the thing to an extreme, doesn't mean that the idea is wrong.

    The disdain that we get for bringing up the foundational problems is much like going up against a religious fundamentalist. They repeat the same old answers, and never try and incorporate the new findings that question the old theorys. It is remarkably like geology and plate tectonics. I don't see anything changing till the old guard dies off.

    Rant off. Still i would like to see the NASA databases in a more useful format. Adsabs is useful if you already know what you are looking for, but not a good way to learn.

  2. Oh, rant away, I do it all the time...
    Adsabs sounds like Pubmed, excellent for exact searches.

    There are always going to be esoteric papers, especially in a place like ArXiv which doesn't have peer-review.

    Thanks for sharing your experience with citizen science:) It was very interesting to read.

  3. any suggestions for getting publicly funded research out to the public, instead of behind paywalls?

  4. I admit I don't have magic solutions- somebody should pay editors, graphic designers, etc.

    There are the conventional solutions today - researchers paying for their work to be published open-access and preprint repositories like ArXiv.

    Perhaps the best way is to pass laws at the country level that will force any public-funded researcher to make his/her job open access.

    Also, more universities can make it mandatory to their researchers to deposit in an open-access university repository.