Doing science in the open

A challenge to the culture of peer-reviewed scientific authority (and secrecy). Not surprisingly, the traditionalists don’t think this premature openness is such a good idea, partly because of how it might change the way scientists work with (and against!) each other—but perhaps more, due to its potential effects on how “Science” and scientists interact with the broader public.

Barry Canton, a 28-year-old biological engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has posted raw scientific data, his thesis proposal, and original research ideas on an online website for all to see.

To young people primed for openness by the confessional existence they live online, that may not seem like a big deal. But in the world of science—where promotions, tenure, and fortune rest on publishing papers in prestigious journals, securing competitive grants, and patenting discoveries—it’s a brazen, potentially self-destructive move. To many scientists, leaving unfinished work and ideas in the open seems as reckless as leaving your debit card and password at a busy ATM machine.

Canton is part of a peaceful insurgency in science that is beginning to pry open an endeavor that still communicates its cutting-edge discoveries in much the same way it has since Ben Franklin was experimenting with lightning. Papers are published in research journals after being reviewed by specialists to ensure that the methods and conclusions are sound, a process that can take many months.

“We’re a generation who expects all information is a Google search away,” Canton said. “Not only is it a Google search away, but it’s also released immediately. As soon as it happens, the video is up on YouTube and on all the blogs. The old model feels kind of crazy when you’re used to this instant information.”

from “Out in the open: Some scientists sharing results,” by Carolyn Y. Johnson, Boston Globe, 21 August 2008

Originally published at

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