Open science is a concept rapidly gaining traction in the scientific community, whereby hypotheses, methods and results are shared openly with others, allowing real-time peer review and collaboration.
The prime example of a platform offering such functionality is ResearchGate. Often described as social media for scientists, the Berlin-based website has amassed an impressive 4 million members, allowing experts from both closely related and seemingly disparate disciplines from all over the world to collaborate on problems and review findings.
But while ResearchGate is an impressive first step on the road to open science, the potential for the concept to involve the wider non-scientific community in science remains relatively untapped.
Although scientific results are already shared by many scientists, this wealth of information is rarely transformed into a user-friendly and contextualised form. As a result the task of accurately reconstructing and judging the merit of experimental methods is rendered extremely difficult, particularly for the layman.
Another barrier is attitudes in the scientific community. Some researchers are sceptical of the value of the public contributing to the scientific process, and fear the additional burden will reduce the time available for conducting actual research.
A final difficulty lies is logistics. Despite the clear benefits of open science – whereby public participation in research could enable the collaborative design and creation of research projects, the cooperative collection and production of information, or the collective repurposing of existing information – few know how to go about making this a reality.
An open culture
Aiming to break down these barriers to allow the realisation of genuinely open science, a number of initiatives are targeting specific scientific questions amenable to a citizen science approach.
One of the most high profile has been running for 15 years at the University of California, Berkeley. SETI@home (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) is a project to detect intelligent life beyond Earth. Radio telescopes are used to listen for narrow-bandwidth unnatural radio signals from space but the amount of data requires an inordinate amount of supercomputing power. Therefore, the public has been asked to help by downloading a program that takes a small portion of SETI-generated data over the internet, analyse those data, and then report the results back to the UC Berkeley team.
This distributed computing approach was groundbreaking at the time of SETI@home’s launch, but now other open science projects are allowing the public to get far more involved in the scientific process.
For example, crowdsourcing data analysis conservation initiative ForestWatchers asks volunteers including locals, NGOs and governments to monitor high-resolution Earth images of selected patches of forest across the globe, almost in real-time, using a computer connected to the internet.
Tackling a different problem, the Encyclopedia of Life (EOL) was originally inspired by Wikipedia and is a free, online collaborative encyclopaedia intended to document all 1.9 million living species, and eventually extinct species, known to science. Compiling video, sound, images, graphics and text from across the internet on each species, EOL will be a living resource open and free to use for everyone.
These and other projects are showing that, given the will, there is a way to make science truly engaging and open to all. If successful, it will change not only how the public views science, but the most fundamental and unchanging aspect of science itself – the scientific method.