The Future of Academic Research

Yesterday, Nature – one of the worlds premier scientific journals recognized University of British Columbia scientist Rosie Redfield as one of the top 10 science newsmakers of 2011.

The reason?

After posting a scathing attack on her blog about a paper that appeared in the journal Science, Redfield decided to attempt to recreate the experiment and has been blogging about her effort over the past year. As Nature describes it:

…that month, Redfield took matters into her own hands: she began attempting to replicate the work in her lab at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, and documenting her progress on her blog (

The result has been a fascinating story of open science unfolding over the year. Redfield’s blog has become a virtual lab meeting, in which scientists from around the world help to troubleshoot her attempts to grow and study the GFAJ-1 bacteria — the strain isolated by Felisa Wolfe-Simon, lead author of the Science paper and a microbiologist who worked in the lab of Ronald Oremland at the US Geological Survey in Menlo Park, California.

While I’m excited about Redfields blog (more on that below) we should pause and note the above paragraph is a very, very sad reminder of the state of affairs in science. I find the term “open science” to be an oxymoron. The scientific process only works when it is, by definition, open. There is, quite arguably, no such thing as “closed science.” And yet it is a reflection of how 18th century the entire science apparatus remains that Redfields awesome experiment is just that – an experiment. We should celebrate her work, and ask ourselves, why is this not the norm?

So first, to celebrate her work… when I look at Redfields blog, I see exactly what I hope the future of scientific, and indeed all academic research, will look like. Here is someone who is constantly updating their results and sharing what they are doing with their peers, as well as getting input and feedback from colleagues and others around the world. Moreover, she plays to the mediums strengths. While rigorous, she remains inviting and, from my reading, creates a more honest and human view into the world of science. I suspect that this might be much more attractive (and inspiring) to potential scientists. Consider, these two lines from one of her recent posts:

So I’m pretty sure I screwed something up. But what? I used the same DNA stock tube I’ve used many times before, and I definitely remember putting 3 µl of DNA into each assay tube. I made fresh sBHI + novobiocin plates using pre-made BHI agar,, and I definitely remember adding the hemin (4 ml), NAD (80 µl) and novobiocin (40 µl) to the melted agar before I poured the plates.


UPDATE: My novobiocin plates had no NovR colonies because I had forgotten to add the required hemin supplement to the agar! How embarrassing – I haven’t made that mistake in years.

and then this blog post title:

Some control results! (Don’t get excited, it’s just a control…)

Here is someone literally walking through their thought processes in a thorough, readable way. Can you imagine anything more helpful for a student or young scientist? And the posts! Wonderfully detailed walk throughs of what has been tried, progress made and set backs uncovered. And what about the candor! The admission of error and the attempts to figure out what went wrong. It’s the type of thinking I see from great hackers as well. It’s also the type of dialogue and discussion you won’t see in a formal academic paper but is exactly what I believe every field (from science, to non-profit, to business) needs more of.

Reading it all, and I’m once again left wondering. Why is this the experiment? Why isn’t this the norm? Particularly at publicly funded universities?

Of course, the answer lies in another question, one I first ran into over a year ago reading this great blog post by Michael Clarke on Why Hasn’t Scientific Publishing Been Disrupted Already? As he so rightly points out:

When Tim Berners-Lee created the Web in 1991, it was with the aim of better facilitating scientific communication and the dissemination of scientific research. Put another way, the Web was designed to disrupt scientific publishing. It was not designed to disrupt bookstores, telecommunications, matchmaking services, newspapers, pornography, stock trading, music distribution, or a great many other industries…

…The one thing that one could have reasonably predicted in 1991, however, was that scientific communication—and the publishing industry that supports the dissemination of scientific research—would radically change over the next couple decades.

And yet it has not.

(Go read the whole article, it is great). Mathew Ingram also has a great piece on this published half a year later called So when does academic publishing get disrupted?

Clarke has a great breakdown on all of this, but my own opinion is that scientific journals survive not because they are an efficient means of transmitting knowledge (they are not – Redfield’s blog shows there are much, much faster ways to spread knowledge). Rather journals survive in their current form because they are the only rating system scientists (and more importantly) universities have to deduce effectiveness, and thus who should get hired, fired, promoted and, most importantly, funded. Indeed, I suspect journals actually impede (and definitely slow) scientific progress. In order to get published scientists regularly hold back sharing and disclosing discoveries and, more often still, data, until they can shape it in such a way that a leading journal will accept it. Indeed, try to get any scientists to publish their data in machine readable formats – even after they have published with it -it’s almost impossible… (notice there are no data catalogs on an scientific journals…) The dirty secret is that this is because they don’t want others using it in case it contains some juicy insight they have so far missed.

Don’t believe me? Just consider this New York Times article on the break throughs in Alzheimer’s. The whole article is about a big break through in scientific research process. What was it? That the scientists agreed they would share their data:

The key to the Alzheimer’s project was an agreement as ambitious as its goal: not just to raise money, not just to do research on a vast scale, but also to share all the data, making every single finding public immediately, available to anyone with a computer anywhere in the world.

This is unprecedented? This is the state of science today? In an era where we could share everything, we opt to share as little as possible. This is the destructive side of the scientific publishing process that is linked to performance.

It is also the sad reason why it is a veteran, established researcher closer to the end of her career that is blogging this way and not a young, up and coming researcher trying to establish herself and get tenure. This type of blog is too risky to ones career. Today “open” science, is not a path forward. It actually hurts you in a system that prefers more inefficient methods at spreading insights, research and data, but is good at creating readily understood rankings.

I’m thrilled that Rosie Redfield has been recognized by Nature (which clearly enjoys the swipe at Science – its competitor). I’m just sad that the today’s culture of science and universities means there aren’t more like her.

Bonus material: If you want to read an opposite view, here is a seriously self-interested defensive of the scientific publishing industry that was totally stunning to read. It’s fascinating that this man and Michael Clarke share the same server. If you look in the comments of that post, there is a link to this excellent post by a researcher at a University in Cardiff that I think is a great counter point.

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