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Open Source in the Science Community

written by: •edited by: Lamar Stonecypher•updated: 8/29/2009

Science itself may be up for another revolution: imagine all scientific research data out there for anyone to examine and study for themselves—in other words, open source science. Here's an overview of what open science is, what it can do for the scientific community, and where's it's already used.

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    What Is Open Source Science?

    There is no strict definition for open source science, otherwise known as open science. However, generally open science is taken to follow four main doctrines: “open source, open data, open access, open notebook.” More clearly, this spells out transparency in scientific methodology, public availability of scientific data and communication, and using the Internet to spread this all around.

    Open science has a number of advantages. Most notably, it will help scientists collaborate with each other: with the free flow of knowledge also comes staggeringly faster development speeds that can take science to places where today we may not have even dreamed of. It also allows scientists to reanalyze the raw data of the experiments of others, which can result in vastly different conclusions that can spark discussion and development.

    “Innovation lies at the intersection of disciplines” is a common quote amongst scientists: while the a problem may lay within one field of expertise, the solution may lie in another one entirely. Numerous examples, from field testing DNA kits to X Prize winners, attest to this fact. After all, it was open science-style agreements that allowed for the Human Genome Project to take place.

    There are a number of models in which such mass collaborative science can function, all with their advantages and disadvantages. All of them deemphasize publication as the sole purpose of research, as is often the case for scientists today.

    There's been a certain loss of faith in the scientific community of late, which open science also hopes to address. By letting the general public in on what scientists are doing, it's hoped that everyone will become interested in science again and what it can accomplish, and not just doubt its veracity.

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    Open Journal

    The vast majority of scientific research ends up in the endless tracts of scientific journals out there—most which cost a tidy sum of money, making them difficult to impossible for many scientists and students of science to access in large quantities.

    Open source science will change that. All scientific journals, all open source, all free, for whoever wishes to access them. There are already numerous examples of open source journals, more than 2600 as of early 2008. Open Medicine is a great example of this.

    There is also open source software available to manage and search all these open source journals, developed by the Public Knowledge Project, called Open Journal Systems.

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    Mass Data Analysis

    When you have a lot of data, you need a lot of eyes to go over it. A common practice with NASA is to actually put all of their data online so that the masses of amateur astronomers can go over it and look for anomalies and alert the officials at NASA to maybe take a closer look. Countless comets, variable stars, abnormal galaxies, strange features on Mars have been found by science enthusiasts who just wanted to lend their eyes and what knowledge they had. A good example of this is the THEMIS project, just using Google and a little time. This can be applied to other sciences as well: the more people go over data, the more likely that discoveries can be gleaned from it.

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    Open Notebook Science

    Open science doesn't necessarily just mean finished research, either—it can also be findings that didn't lead to anything at all, even everyday tests in a lab. After all, one scientist's inconclusive data is another scientist's discovery: novel uses for existing research is a perfectly legitimate way of making scientific developments. A great example of this is the Open Notebook Science initiative, where chemists can compare and contrast their every result, not just their analyses.

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    Funding Imperatives & Open Source

    Increasingly, many funding agencies require that all research that is gleaned using the agency's money be made open source. This insures that whatever they end up developing will be of use to other scientists to build even further off of, as opposed to being the domain of a certain group of scientists that needs to be duplicated (or purchased) by other groups, wasting developmental resources.

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    Open Source, Better Ethics

    With everything in the open, it's hard to keep secrets. One of the advantages of open science is that it helps prevent possible ethics violations, as all details of the methods used are made publicly available. There's no hiding behind any screens here: science is entirely transparent for public discussion and public regulation.

    This also includes preventing the publication of fake research. Public confidence was especially shaken after two controversial papers were published in Science—only to be found to be fraudulent later on.

    Check out this article for a great in-depth piece on open science.