Michael Nielsen about The Future of Science

In this following blogpost I’ll try to summarize a blogpost I read about “The future of Science”. This blogpost contains a lot of information, I’m going to focus on the parts that would be of use when I’ll have to implement social features myself.

In his blogplost Michael Nielsen starts with describing the history of science and research. The system of publication hasn’t changed much the last 300 years. But the internet offers us a great way to handle science more openly and a sort of online memory. He predicts that the way we do science will change more in the next 20 years than in the past 300 years.

Part I

In the first part he explains some of the benefits of internet for science, problems, … .

How can the internet benefit science?

It could improve the way we do science by either

  • Online tools as a way of expanding the range of scientific knowledge that can be shared with the world. Example: physics preprint arXiv who allow researchers to share preprints of their papers without a long delay and more recently ResearchGate that allows to share papers based on self-archiving agreements.
  • A change to the process and scale of creative collaboration itself, a change enabled by social software such as wikis, online forums, and their descendants.

Failure of science online

He also show some examples where the idea of online science has failed, an example closest to my thesis is the failure of online comment sites. The example he gives is: Nature’s 2006 trial of open commentary on papers undergoing peer review at Nature. This was not a success because most of the people wanted to read reviews of the papers but not comment on the papers.

One of the reasons he points out is that there are few incentives for people to write such comments.

Achieving extreme openness in science

In the examples mentioned by Michael Nielsen failures are all caused by a surprising reluctance to share knowledge that could be useful to others. He tells us we should aim to open scientific culture where as much information as possible is moved out of people’s heads and labs, onto the network, and into tools which can help us structure and filter the information. This means everything – data, scientific opinions, questions, ideas, folk knowledge, workflows, and everything else – the works. Information not on the network can’t do any good. To achieve a kind of extreme openness.

By this he means: making many more types of content available than just scientific papers, not just the end result but also the creative process.

I think this is a good goal but not realistic because like in all other fields, a creative process is something individual and people are even less eager to share this kind of information. But in my opinion we should offer the tools for this creative process which will offer a way to work online and once they do the creative process online they might be willing to share it.

How can we open up scientific culture?

Michael Nielsen tells us that to create an open scientific culture that embraces new online tools, two challenging tasks must be achieved:

  1. build superb online tools;
  2. and cause the cultural changes necessary for those tools to be accepted.

A mistake that is often made is to focus on building tools, with cultural change an afterthought. He tells us to develop such tools requires a rare combination of strong design and technical skills, and a deep understanding of how science works.

The second task seems to be the most difficult, Michael Nielsen suggest for the people building the new online tools to also develop and boldly evangelize ways of measuring the contributions made with the tools. This is an interesting way of looking at building tools because if using a tool is not recognized in the scientific community why even bother spending time using it.

A success story is the arXiv and SPIRES story in which not long after the arXiv began, a citation tracking service called SPIRES decided they would extend their service to include both arXiv papers and conventional journal articles. Because of the quality of the service it is now used by hiring committees to evaluate candidates.

Looking at this success story and the two tasks of Michael Nielsen I think a good online tool start with good quality. But it doesn’t stop there it should be able the measure the contributions made by the tool!

Part II

In the second part he starts of with the problem of collaboration. Often people have we a small group of trusted collaborators with whom we exchange questions and ideas when we are stuck. Unfortunately, most of the time even those collaborators aren’t that much help. They may point us in the right direction, but rarely do they have exactly the expertise we need.

The question he asks is whether it is possible to scale up this conversational model, and build an online collaboration market to exchange questions and ideas, a sort of collective working memory for the scientific community? An extremely demanding creative culture already exists which shows that such a collaboration market is feasible – the culture of free and open source software.

Next the author describes two embryonic examples which suggest that collaboration markets for science may be valuable. One of the examples is FriendFeed, it can be used for collaboration. But a problem like a lot of online tools is again, the lack of widely accepted metrics to measure contribution.

To end Michael Nielsen gives some examples of inefficiences in the current system of collaboration. Like scientists having problems in a project that is outside their field but could easily be solved by a colleague at the other side of the world. This problem can be solved by using the internet, but another problem comes to mind. For scientist to work there has to be a great deal of mutual trust. An ideal collaboration would have elements like metrics of contributions, impact of work, archiving of contributions, …


It is clear that the author is trying to say that their is a lack of metrics of contributions and impact of work in the current tools available. I agree with the author on this point because looking at some of the social networks earlier this information is present. Having more information about how many times a paper is cited or a is mentioned in a science blog could give a great indication of the impact of a work. Creating a value for online work in science would in my opinion be a great incentive for scientist to share content online. One could see this as a challenge for the future.

It is a strange fact that often social networks like Facebook and Linked in are used to check if someone is capable for a job. But when it comes to science their is no equivalent, again their is no value to the online work of a scientist.

Another thing he points out is the difficulty of getting the scientist out of their old culture of publishing, for this reason tools that are developed should have an even higher quality and usability to convince people to use it.


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