w4s - the challenges ahead of us

This is one of a bunch of posts on science and the Web. Start here for an overview.


The web represents an opportunity for a phase transition in terms of connectedness and openness in scientific practice, as in software development, and we're not taking much advantage of it. Why?

  1. There is really no direct incentive for many scientists to change. (Can we afford to wait for a generation or two for the practice of science to change?)
  2. Collaboration technology is what's most used by scientists -- e-mail and videoconf -- but it's mostly neither open nor hackable. (Is that the future that we want?)
  3. Many scientists have virtually no computational literacy. (Despite both the Internet itself and the Web having deep roots in academia, most scientists know little outside of their domain, which limits their ability to grok the opportunities of new tech.)
  4. Lots of new, exciting technology is virtually unusable unless you spend a lot of time figuring it out. (How many of you ever set the time on your VCR -- or did I just date myself?)
  5. The institutional incentive systems are broken. (Collaboration is either ignored or treated as a negative, while progress is measued in dead-tree terms.)
  6. Innovation in the social practice of science is tolerated only within well-established boundaries. (Scientists who want to be even remotely innovative are discouraged, or, if they're persistent enough, treated as outsiders -- because they're stepping outside the boundaries of traditional incentive systems.)
  7. The funding systems are broken. (Progress is measured in in dead-tree terms.)
  8. Alternative reputation systems have been slow to emerge. (What would be the point, given the last few things I mentioned?)
  9. The traditional incentive systems aren't just slowing down and blocking change; they're mutating credit and pushing the right people away from science. (Computational people who are often technically integral to projects are regarded as computational lackeys, and rarely get those career-important first-author papers; instead, their peers and colleagues, who make use of them, garner the credit.)
  10. There are many individual "points of light", but surprisingly little cross-talk, coordination, or advocacy. (You run into the same ol' people again and again, working in their own little isolated ponds, precisely because the existing system is such an overwhelming wet blanket that wider collaborations are an unwelcome effort..)

In order to accelerate the transition to an open science culture, we need to figure out how to meme hack science. This is going to be tricky -- it requires that new systems be made available that are so darned useful that not using them is unthinkable.

Personal anecdote: my graduate advisor transitioned over to doing his own e-mail while I was in grad school. When I first joined the lab, his admin assistant would bring him printouts of all his e-mails. Within a few years, he transitioned to reading and answering many of them personally, to the point where I could reach him more quickly and easily via e-mail than any other way.

If online webbish science practice really is better, why haven't we seen scientists switch over en masse to it like we have to e-mail and online papers? What's the right hook or set of hooks? I'd love to know.

--titus

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