For Science!

Posted on Tue 24 November 2009 by alex in geek

A couple of stories recently have gotten me thinking about the process of doing science and how it may change in the coming years. The current approach is to spend time doing your research and once your happy you have a defensible theory you write a paper explaining what you did and submit it to one of the journals appropriate to your field. The paper will then spend some time being peer reviewed, possibly bouncing back and forth before (hopefully) being accepted and published. At this point you score science points which can be spent on doing more science*. If the journal doesn't accept your paper you either go back to square one or possibly submit to a less well known journal that is a little more forgiving.

This is all well and good as peer review is an important aspect of the scientific process. However it takes time and there is always the risk that some other group gets through the publishing process first. There isn't really a concept of a second prize and journals loose interest in publishing papers that just confirm what the first guy said (unless it brings some new revelation that builds on previous work). It also has potential problems with bias as members of the review pool may be working on different theories.

The Internet has long been a tool of academia and allows disparate groups scattered around the world to collaborate on shared areas of interest through email. However emails are by their very nature private and even public mailing lists don't really approach the rigour of a properly cited and argued paper. Sites such as ArXiv offer an additional place to get ideas out there. Scientists can publish to ArXiv while waiting for papers to go through the review process and it can be argued the additional scrutiny of being read by people on the site adds to the quality of peer review. Some people take things even further, for example Garrett Lisi who's theory of everything offers an intriguing potential solution to grand unification, does all his work in public on his website. Of course Lisi is in an interesting position as being privately funded he doesn't *need* the academic points to secure future funding. However from my experience with Open Source software I can see the attraction of a more open collaborative approach to research. After all scientists in the main are all about improving the body of public knowledge about how things work.

It's interesting to consider the principles of open collaboration in the light of the recent selective leaking of the University of East Anglia's Climate Research Unit's emails.

On the face of it there are two main concerns raised by the incident. The first being a generally poor attitude held by member of the CRU to people that hold opposing views and their attempts to use Freedom of Information legislation to obtain access to the raw data. The other the fact that for research that involves a lot of simulation the raw source data and simulation code is kept secret. The first is probably a reflection of the intensity of the debate between the two sides of the argument (and not treating anything committed to an electronic medium as potentially public). The second is most likely a function of worrying about exposing potentially hacky code to critical eyes and the perceived value of the data-set that has involved many man-years of effort to build.

Let me be clear that I'm perfectly happy with accepting the current scientific consensus about anthropogenic climate change. However it is important for the progress of science to keep testing all the theories until they break. The current frothing over the leak while raising eyebrows doesn't expose a conspiracy to defraud the worldwide community with fake science. However I can't help wondering if the current hullabaloo could have been avoided if a more open approach had been taken towards doing the science?