What do we mean by open science?

(Addressed in absentia to “Tools for Open Science”, Second Life, Aug 20 2007.  I am sorry I could not be there.)

I think we all know what we want, and I think we all want much the same thing, which boils down to just this: cooperation.  A way forward for science, a way out of the spiralling inefficiency of patent thickets, secret experiments and dog-eat-dog competition.  But we use a variety of terms, and probably mean slightly different things even when we use the same terms.  It might — I am not sure — be useful at this point to come together on an agreed definition for an agreed term or set of terms  — something equivalent to the Berlin/Bethesda/Budapest Open Access Declarations.

If this does not seem like a “tool for open science”, consider what the BBB definition has done for Open Access.  It provides cohesion, a point of reference and a standard introduction for newcomers, and acts as a nucleation center for an effective movement with clear and agreed goals.  Since this SL session takes off from SciFoo, and SciFoo is by all accounts very good at converting brainstorming sessions into practical outcomes, I thought perhaps the idea of a definition or declaration of Open Science might be a suitable topic.  In what I hope is the spirit of SciFoo, here are some ideas that might be useful in such a discussion.


Whatever this thing is, what should we call it?  There are a number of terms in use:

  • Open Science — has the weight of Creative Commons/Science Commons behind it, via iCommons
  • Open Source Science — Jamais Cascio, Chemists Without Borders
  • Open Source Biology — Molecular Biosciences Institute
  • I think “biology” too narrow — there seems little point in Open Chemistry, Open Microbiology, Open Foo all having different names.  I think Open Source Foo too likely to lead to confusion with software initiatives, and too likely to lead to pointless arguments about what the “source code” is.
  • That leaves Open Science, which would be my choice for an umbrella term.  A case can be made, though, for Open Research, on the same basis on which I argue against Open Biology etc — see this comment from Matthias Röder
  • Another “inclusive” possibility is to focus on information — Open Data, as per PMR’s wikipedia entry, or the broader Open Content.  In the same vein, the Open Knowledge Foundation provides a fairly comprehensive definition of Open Knowledge.
  • I have seen “Science 2.0” around quite a bit lately, though it’s a bit too marketing-speak for my taste
  • Open Notebook Science is a very specific subset of Open Science: if your notebook is open to the world, there’s not much confusion about access barriers!  It even comes with its own motto: “no insider information”.  This is as Open as Open gets.

Sources and Models

We don’t have to re-invent the wheel:


We don’t want to start a cult, and we don’t want to bog anyone down in semantics.  There’s no purity test or loyalty oath.  My own view is that Open Science (or whatever we end up calling it) is not an ideology but an hypothesis: that openly shared, collaborative research models will prove more productive than the highly competitive “standard model” under which we now operate. 

Openness in scientific research covers a range of practices, from tentative explorations with a single small side-project all the way to Open Notebook Science á la Jean-Claude, and we should welcome every step away from the current hypercompetitive model.  Open Notebook Science provides a useful marker for the Open end of the spectrum; perhaps all a Declaration need do is identify the minimum requirements that mark the other end of the spectrum?


What standards must a research project or programme meet in order to be considered Open?

  • obvious: Open Access publication
  • equally crucial: Open Data, that is, raw data as freely available (inc
    luding machine access) as OA text
  • probably indispensable: Open Licensing so as to avoid confusion as to what is truly available and for what purposes; as per Peters Suber and Murray-Rust, this must be
    • explicit
    • conspicuous
    • machine-readable
  • Open Semantics: perhaps none of this will be much good without metadata and standards to allow interoperability and free flow of information
  • desirable: Free/Open Source Software
  • David Wiley: “four Rs” of Open Content (cf. Stallman’s four fundamental freedoms for software):
    • Reuse – Use the work verbatim, just exactly as you found it
    • Rework – Alter or transform the work so that it better meets your needs
    • Remix – Combine the (verbatim or altered) work with other works to better meet your needs
    • Redistribute – Share the verbatim work, the reworked work, or the remixed work with others
  • OKF definition of Open Knowledge

4 thoughts on “What do we mean by open science?

  1. Bill,
    I think we should have a SciFoo Lives On session on definitions and standard for Open Science, separate from the more technical discussion we had yesterday. Obviously you need to be there.
    Next week is “Medicine and Web 2.0”, as suggested by Berci. Maybe the following week then?

  2. Jean-Claude, thanks for organizing that session. I’ll be there! I saw Richard’s post… we should try to get him to come to the SL session.

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