Review: Reinventing Discovery by Michael Nielsen

Articles —> Review: Reinventing Discovery by Michael Nielsen

Having been a scientist for over ten years, I have seen different ends of the spectrum when it comes to sharing data and ideas. On one side is the free collaboration community, in which ideas and even data are shared publicly or amongst groups. On the opposite end is self-containment - data is shared only when it becomes the benefit of the scientist, typically through publication. In my experience in academia and industry the spectrum leans heavily towards that of self-containment. Michael Nielsen's book Reinventing Discovery is a fantastic description of the struggle between open and closed science.

So what does it mean to refer to the scientific community as closed? Yes, scientists get together frequently at conferences, institutional visits, or even through personal communication. However, the old adage looms heavily over many scientists heads: publish or perish. Full disclosure means opening up the chances of someone else taking your data or ideas and running with it - in the world of publication, 'scooping' the story from right beneath your feet. Scooping can affect ones chances at getting published, funding, tenure, or even a job.

Science has a lot to benefit from being open. Sharing ideas, hypothesis, and data not only help fuel discovery more rapidly, but also provide transparency to the public and funding agencies. Reinventing Discovery provides ample examples where sharing ideas means discovery. The Polymath Project, Galaxy Zoo, and even innocentive are just a few examples discussed in detail. Nielsen colorfully places the scientific community under the microscope, and Chapter after Chapter Nielsen reveals detailed examples that fully disclose both the power of and current problems with sharing in the scientific community

However, in this scientist's opinion the strongest part of this book is its ideas and conclusions with regards to ways in which the community could change to become more open. Change has already begun, notes Nielsen, with examples such as sequence sharing through agencies such as NCBI. However, further change through funding agencies, hiring committees, etc... is an idea which, if implemented, will change the community. Science benefits us all, from technological development to cures to diseases, all of which is dependent upon discoveries within the global scientific community. A closed community in many cases means slower progress: making the art of discovery a community effort as opposed to an individual (or small group effort) could rapidly advance our understanding and technology. Reinventing Discovery is a must read for any professional scientist, and a great read for everyone else.

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