Monday, September 22, 2008

Participating in Science 2.0

A few months ago, I read an article from Scientific American on a new concept in science, known as Science 2.0.

In an overly-diluted nutshell, the idea of "Science 2.0" is to make use of new tools on the internet, such as wikis and blogs and the like, to allow a freer exchange of information in science. Scientists can write about their experiences, experiments, and results on-the-fly, in addition to (or instead of) waiting and boiling it down into a single journal article that can take years to produce. The result: more shared information (scientists believe that free access to information is almost always good), which results in better science.

My first reaction to this was, "fat chance." A small but very serious problem that we don't talk about very much is academic dishonesty. There are some people out there who are not above taking other people's ideas or data and running with them, trying to publish a paper before the originator can. In some cases this may be almost justifiable, such as if the original author is taking an inordinately long time (though there may be good reason!) to work on an interesting problem. But I've seen several cases where things were pretty blatant -- a grad student mentioned her/his work to a more senior person at another institution, and within a month, that senior person announced the "discovery" of that very thing. Or Hubble data, which only the proposing scientist has access to for the first year, somehow finds its way into the hands of a competitor, who does an analysis that clearly takes six months and submits a paper the very day that the data become public, while the proposer is left feeling "scooped." It happens, though rarely.

So, I asked myself, why would I want to share the details of my work with the world, especially if I am getting an interesting result and don't want to get scooped? Especially when I'm at a critical time in my career, trying to make a name for myself. So, at the time, it seemed to me like an idea doomed to fail.

This weekend, I spent most of the weekend working on a wiki for an instrument at McDonald Observatory. For those who don't know, a wiki is just a series of web pages that any reader (or selected readers) can freely edit. Wikipedia is one example. Wikis have their problems; Wikipedia pages are routinely filled with wrong information, deleted by vandals, or even changed to include intentional misinformation. Such changes can be undone, once they are caught, but, in the meantime, who knows what innocent reader was lead astray. There are ways around this. Pages can be set so they can only be edited by select people, automated programs can be written to look for vandalism, and so on.

Wikis have two great advantages: they are easy to edit (people who don't know web coding like HTML can just type away), and they can be changed by multiple people, so if someone has useful information to add, they can do so.

And this is what, in my opinion, makes wikis great for writing instruction manuals for astronomical observations. At any observatory, instruments are constantly changing due to upgrades and repairs and modifications, but instrument manuals (often written by people who no longer work on that instrument) are slow to change. And, the people who know the true capabilities of an instrument often are not the builders of the instrument, but the users of the instrument. So, why not have a page that a sleep-deprived astronomer can edit at four in the morning to describe how they fixed some weird problem that cropped up?

So, anyway, this weekend I was taking an existing written instrument manual and wikifying it, at the same time adding in my own personal opinions and updates. And then it hit me -- that is what Science 2.0 should be -- an online version of walking down the hall and asking a collaborator, "How do you do this?" Or, "what do you make of this weird object I found?" Or, "I hear that the telescope doesn't point right, do you know anything about this?"

And I went back and re-read the Scientific American Article on Science 2.0, and I realized that my thoughts were very similar to what the authors were conveying. I hadn't read and considered the story deeply enough to appreciate the point that their concept of "Science 2.0" is much more than just sharing results or some sort of world-wide research team, especially since it is the sharing of detailed ideas and results is where a lot of the problems with academic dishonesty can come in. Their idea of Science 2.0 is essentially making an online version of the typical research department, where scientists can come together and talk through problems and work on forming ideas and learning what techniques do and don't work. And then we can all go off by ourselves to work on our detailed research using what we learned. And by increasing the size of the community beyond the bounds of the typical University campus, we increase the overall brain pool on which we can draw that crucial piece of knowledge that was keeping us from finishing a project.

And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that astronomy is already evolving rapidly in the direction of this "Science 2.0" concept. We have online wikis, discussion forums, software user groups, blogs, publishing sites, and so on. Most of us have just never tried to lump this into a single, pretentious-sounding term like "Astronomy 2.0". Instead, the rapid evolution of online tools and online community has just become part of our science. And, while the problems of academic dishonesty are still present, they are no worse than they have been.

So, I was wrong. "Science 2.0" not only is a good idea, but an existing, functioning, and constantly-evolving tool of modern astronomy. A tool that I was participating in, without even knowing it.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent post, and it mirrors my thoughts as well.

    Often, I feel that we are completely wasting the most powerful aspects of today's technology: the ability of being connected to everyone so readily, the giant amount of computer power at our disposal, and harnessing the incredible things we can do when we effectively collaborate. There are a LOT of very sharp people out there, just waiting for the opportunity to contribute in ways that.

    "Science 2.0" seems to encompasses all of that. I recently returned to school after a long time, and I was a little surprised that this paradigm hadn't hit academia really yet. I'm looking forward to helping push things in that direction from the inside.