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Open Science communities and the evolution of an Open Knowledge Society

December 8, 2011 - 22:01 -- Tom Olijhoek

Open Science is more than Open Access and Open Data; all of us can get involved



From early times on information has always been passed orally or on paper. In terms of information technology information on paper is compartmentalized. Finding information meant finding the right book or publication. Books then gave a more or less complete picture, any links to other work were often just there for reference purposes. This is fundamentally different from the information contained in the internet, which is hyperlinked by nature. Rather than the finding of information, it is the filtering of relevant information that is hard to do on the Internet (2B2K).   There is an enormous amount of information stored in the net and open access to this knowledge is critical to its sharing between individuals and groups. But sharing alone is not enough. Knowledge only becomes useful when we can distinguish between relevant and less relevant information, when we can discuss aspects of the information, when we can annotate and improve on ideas, when we can devise new approaches and collaborate online. This system is what I define as “open science”, where scientists have free and unrestricted access to information and use interactive media to collaborate online.

For scientific research this means that open access to publications is necessary to create the opportunities for sharing, but that the social interaction of scientists in online scientific communities is necessary to do something (useful) with the information.

Most online scientific communities use basic communication schemes. Examples of this are open access publishers like Frontiers, BiomedCentral, PLoS and Intech who provide a platform for online scientific communities and interactivity (blog, forum, interest groups). Independent internet community platforms like Mendeley,, and Connotea go one step further and provide online reference managing facilities including real time annotation, repository facilities, working on shared documents and managing of collaborative projects. The filtering of publications is done by group members using specially developed tools like Papercritic ……….

All these communities already go a long way towards the ultimate goal of an open science society, but integration of social media like Twitter, Facebook or Google+ would certainly add to their growing potential. Specialized online communities like MalariaWorld (malaria scientists) and the OAD ( Open Access Directory with members interested in Open Access) also provide means to share information online and varying degrees of interactivity. The OAD for example uses social bookmarking via Connotea and will be streaming the information to the recently created OATP Google+ account for interactivity. (for the moment this information is on twitter @oatp).  MalariaWorld consists of a community of >7000 malaria scientists who receive weekly updates on new malaria publications by mail. Providing interactivity online is an important aspect of the site. A new academic social media network, GoingOn has been developed because students aren’t attuned to old forms of information like handbooks on paper and online portals anymore. Students are used to the right information coming to them at the right time, typically in the form of activity streams like on Twitter and Facebook. And they’re used to interacting with this information, whether that’s by sharing or commenting or recommending. So this is exactly what the  GoingOn offers, very similar to the open science community platforms described above. Because the scientists of tomorrow are the students of today I am convinced that open science communities will continue to grow.

Imagine having these interactive open science communities in place, plus an open access publishing system.  What would be the most remarkable change apart from the aspect of having open access to scientific information? I think that the most prominent change would consist of another way to validate (review and rank) scientific publications:

 i) in an open science system the conventional peer review system would be impractical and would have to be replaced for instance by a community ranking system like the ranking used for open source software and in internet sites like stackoverflow. Publishers like Frontiers are experimenting with post-peer review and impact statistics.

 ii) the use of citation indexes for the assessment of the quality of publications is not compatible with open access publishing and alternatives are being developed. A number of applications have already been developed for Mendeley in which the impact of research is measured (based on mentions in social media: PLoS impact explorer, Total Impact), the quality (based on post-publication peer review: PaperCritic) or the usability (based on how many people access the information: ReaderMeter). The sum of these qualities will certainly give an overall better assessment of the research quality than the Citation Index could ever provide.

iii) another obvious change would be the changing role of the (Open Access) publisher. It is entirely possible that scientific publishers will transform into companies providing web space, storage facilities, interactive tools and online publication for scientific communities. Frontiers (see above) is one example of an Open Access publisher that develops along these lines. It has recently closed an funding agreement with the Max Planck Society in which  all publication charges for research articles submitted by authors affiliated with any Max Planck Institute will be directly and fully funded by the Max Planck Society.  With a growing number of services, Frontiers aims to be home to the world’s largest academic online research community and could become a model open science community.

iv) open access publishing will be done exclusively using Creative Commons CC-BY licensing where one is free to share, adapt or make commercial use of data. Incredible as it sounds, a big open access publisher like PubmedCentral today still uses CC-NC licensing which means that apart from reading you are not allowed to do anything with the information. And they are not the only ones. Nature, Springer and others also use CC-NC licensing which renders open access virtually valueless. Because this matter is so important, Peter Murray-Rust has started an open discussion on okfn-discuss (a discussion list of the Open Knowledge Foundation), on strategies to convince publishers to use CC-BY licensing.

In my view the open knowledge society of tomorrow will consist of open science communities of experts in all possible areas. Making optimal use of the internet and social media, scientists in these communities will collaborate to produce more useful knowledge and to store and provide information for those who seek it. Especially for medical scientists in the developing world, these communities would provide vehicles for innovation, health improvement and development in their respective countries. The only hope on winning the battle against malaria, aids, neglected diseases and other tropical infections lies in free access to and sharing of information, and in joining forces by way of social media and open science communities. A research community like MalariaWorld for instance, has all the necessary ingredients to play a key role in the battle against malaria.