An excellent EuroScience adventure, Part I

Well, what can I say! The EuroScience Open Forum 2008 in Barcelona has turned out great so far. Due to its considerable greatitude and excellent greatishness, Jan decided not to let me have all the fun by myself and joined me yesterday.

On the downside, the heat and travel stress didn’t exactly help me get rid of my still-persisting cough/throat inflammation. I was barely able to sleep again for the first two nights in Barcelona, and I will need some more days rest at home when I return to London. Nonetheless, we attended some very inspiring sessions and received enthusiastic feedback on our presentation today (more on that in a later post) – let me recapitulate.

Saturday, the most interesting session was on “Open Science” or “Open Notebook Science”, on which Prof. Peter Murray-Rust from Cambridge gave a very spirited talk…

…followed by a not-so-spirited talk given by he-who-shall-not-be-named and in which every slide looked like this:

Anyhow, “Open Notebook Science” is a fairly recent idea which has gained more and more exposure in the past few months. The basic premise is that researchers should not only share their publications through Open Access outlets, but also freely publish their raw data alongside it so that it can be validated, re-purposed and aggregated.

This, of course, entails some problems: Academic careers and tenure decisions depend on publications, so how can you incentivise researchers to lay open their data before they’re certain that they have “wrung” all possible publications out of it? I believe that our “Last.fm for research” model, i.e. the chart-like tracking of which papers are being widely read, which authors are up-and-coming etc., could also be extended to raw data – thus giving credit to people who have created the raw data that others are successfully using.

Two other highlights yesterday and today were the keynote speeches by Prof. Marcus du Sautoy from Oxford and by Physiology/Medicine Nobel laureate Dr. Richard J. Roberts. Both described how they had discovered their love of science and the fields they wanted to dedicate themselves to. Little known facts:

Prof. du Sautoy originally wanted to become a spy (to get a nice black gun like his mum, who had worked for the foreign office) and thus tried to learn many different languages. By his own admission, he failed miserably because he did not find languages to be logical enough. Fortunately for him, Mathematics – and especially Symmetry, his field of expertise – offered him a way of describing and understanding the world in more logical terms. Finally, despite his obsession with symmetry, he had this wonderful quote from the 14th-century Japanese Essays in Idleness:

In everything […] uniformity is undesirable. Leaving something incomplete makes it interesting, and gives one the feeling that there is room for growth… Even when building the imperial palace, they always leave one place unfinished.

This reminded me strikingly of the Law of Closure in Gestalt psychology which describes how the mind will try to complete figures if they are unfinished – hence deliberately leaving something incomplete will engage the mind’s creativity.

Today, then, Dr. Roberts spoke about his way from unruly, almost-expelled-from-school teenager to molecular biologist and Nobel laureate.

Dr. Roberts had actually wanted to become a professional snooker player – back in the 1960s, he was West England snooker champion. That was also when he received what he described as one of his most profound life lessons:

During a snooker tournament, he had sunk an incredible “lucky shot” – but then failed to make the next one. After the game, an old man came down from the audience and said to him:

Listen, if you sink a lucky shot like that, you have to concentrate twice as hard on your next shot. Everyone can be lucky, but if you get lucky – don’t feel bad, instead work extra hard to take advantage of it.

Seems to have worked out alright for him! After the talk, I hopped onto the stage to give Dr. Roberts a brief pitch of Mendeley, since he’s now actively involved in the Open Access movement. I’m sure that he gets loads of requests like these, but if we’re lucky, who knows – he might just find our idea interesting enough to give us some feedback.

Finally, here are two pictures of me wearing a brain helmet, looking at my brain activity (and oddly, not seeing any?!):

Phew. I should stop writing now. Must sleep. Will tell more of our exploits later. Adios!

4 thoughts on “An excellent EuroScience adventure, Part I

  1. It will be hard to externally incentivise Open Notebook Science. We do it because it enhances collaboration and enables us to more richly interact with the chemistry community.

  2. Hi Jean-Claude,

    I agree that this should be the ultimate motive behind Open Notebook Science. The problem I described, as well as the question of possible external incentives, was raised by the panelists of the session, and I think they have a point.

    In my opinion, it’s all very discipline-specific. As Prof. Murray-Rust and the session participants pointed out, it’s no coincidence that the academic disciplines which generate the most data (such as astronomy/astrophysics or genetics/molecular biology) are the most-inclined and best-organized when it comes to sharing raw data.

    In my field (consumer research/social psychology), where only little data is generated, Open Notebook Science is virtually unheard of. I believe it’s because the raw data is collected with very specific research questions in mind, which increases the danger of someone else “scooping” your publication if you lay open the data. Here, external incentives could provide a solution.

  3. The Open Access mandates could become a model for which to ensure that data are laid open to the public. If work is funded by public funds then maybe this can be used as a basis to request openness of the data. However, many institutions are funded by private industry and the funders would likely prefer data to stay closed (for them to use primarily). It may be released later or could be a condition of publication that data are made available with the publication. I’m optimistic but can’t see the publishers pushing this really. It’s not part of their business model

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