Monday, November 27, 2017

Invisible scientists and the messiness of science: a dicsussion about open science

Today we hosted a visit of Rosanne Hertzberger with the Young Academy of Groningen. The theme of the afternoon was "open science", and I heard some soundbites that were too good not to share. Rosanne is a very passionate and courageous person who decided to pioneer being a freelance scientist. She started by saying that we as scientists at the university are unaware of how invisible we are. Why? Because we write lots of stuff, that gets put in journals behind a paywall, we talk about our science at conferences that only scientists go to, and we tend to not talk to the public (because we're too busy writing our papers). Good point. Sometimes I feel like the university considers me to be a little hamster running faster and faster in the paper-producing wheel.

She also talked about how science is the only profession where it is not possible to do it as an amateur--you have to be the equivalent of an olympic athlete, or not at all. But why do you have to fully dedicate yourself to science, why is it frowned upon if you have a significant other interest (in her case: writing articles, books and columns). I sometimes feel like that too: why do people think it is so crazy to be a serious amateur ballet dancer as well as a scientist? (see the inspiring quantum physicist Merritt Moore, or my own attempts at dancing and sciencing here). We had a discussion about the extent to which "everyone" can do science (cf. the citizen science movement), but Rosanne retorted that there are so many people who get a PhD and do not get the opportunity to continue in science because there are so few jobs. And another person said: are we even that special as scientists...

Probably one of the most important discussions revolved around the issue of invisibility. Rosanne said "it's very disappointing to see how little openness social media has brought to science. Why is live-tweeting a conference talk still a thing?" In other words, why do scientists not share their talks on youtube? (see for one example to the contrary Richard Morey's periscope broadcasts or the Lab Scribbles open lab notebook). Why don't scientists share their intermediate results on twitter? (while we do see pictures of their kids or cats). We discussed about the benefits of peer review, of which Rosanne posited that it holds us back, because there is too little communication between scientists in the heat of the process about things that work and things that don't. This means that progress is very slow, which is particularly problematic in the case of diseases and epidemics.





I think one other very important point was that in the communication to the public, and in our textbooks, science all looks very clean and shiny, while it is quite messy in the midst of it. Why don't we share our mess online? Rosanne: "it should be standard procedure to overshare. There is no such thing as TMI in science". There was some debate about how this may result in us all drowning in information, but Rosanne argued that a mechanism like reddit would easily allow us to manage this.

A final remark that I really liked was "aren't we reproducing each other's work all the time? It's called scooping." Good point. We ended also discussed quite a bit about incentives in science. Sharing results and materials takes quite a lot of time, for little reward. But this is what will make science progress much more. There is probably also a lot of things we can learn by talking to people from other fields, because in our discussion we learnt that for example in informatics producing reproducible code was standard practice, while sharing event questionnaires is not standard in psychology.

In short: a lot of work needs to be done, and sharing more of our science messiness, materials, intermediate data and so on would probably be a good idea. To be continued!

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