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Industry-funded open citizen science? Let’s try!

Last month I’ve updated my profile on LinkedIn to include the new job – the president of Open Science Foundation. This is a new organisation, founded by my employer, Institute of Biochemistry and Biophysics of Polish Academy of Science. The mission is to promote and develop open science (more on that in another post), but I’d like to focus first on a single idea that I hope can change the dynamics of open science environment.

Citizen science became much more popular than it used to be. For example, Zooniverse platform has crossed 1 milion of users not so long ago. The idea that you can open the process of doing research clearly resonates with many communities, many of which are not academic. During the project “Leveraging citizen science” which I was conducting in 2012-2013, funded by Open Society Foundations, I’ve asked many specific questions on open science and on citizen science to groups like academics, science managers, school teachers, hackers, social innovators or corporate managers. Virtually all were interested, for many different (even conflicting reasons).

The problem with citizen science is that in the current model of conducting and financing such projects, their benefits are limited mainly to academics. For example, participants are not given a clear path how to “level-up” in the project if they spend enough time on it to grasp the details. In most cases, there’s no another level and no chance to be part of discourse on academic level. Another thing is that funding rarely goes for communication with participants (due to small amount of money on which these projects operate), so it often resembles crowdsourcing (do something) than collaboration (let’s work together). The slave-force attitude to participants of citizen science projects actually was clearly present in the language used by scientists from the most prominent CS institution in Europe, who referred to participants, not even as “users”, but “HPUs – human processing units”.

The focus of the grant from Open Society Foundations was the idea that maybe citizen science projects can be funded from other sources, such as corporate social responsibility programs.

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is a mechanism whereby a business ensures compliance with the ethical standards, norms and the spirit of the law. In many cases, CSR implementation includes actions that contribute to some social good, commonly through the involvement of the community interested in the particular goal or outcome. Often, motivation for such actions is reaching desired audience and possibly engage customers, therefore CSR activities are considered a part of firm’s marketing strategy. There are several derivative business concepts that are founded on this tactics, such as “creating shared value”, “social accounting”, “corporate social entrepreneurship”, etc.

I’ve assumed that CSR is a good match for citizen science because:

  • science has still relatively high status (true for majority of European countries)
  • citizen science projects have consistently growing number of participants all over the world (now, estimated at a few millions)
  • it’s easy to predict demographics of participants (projects of high educational value would be picked by teachers/schools; difficult game would attract mostly adults; data collection with smartphones requires participants to have smartphones first; etc.)
  • many of Citizen Science projects have an important social outcome (due to the procedures and traditions of research assessment, they are unlikely to be funded from typical sources, such as national grant agencies; therefore, social outcome is not realized)
  • there are very large number of possible areas of activities (astronomy, ecology, zoology, health, conservation, agronomy, climate research, linguistic, quantum physics, etc.), which contrasts very limited number of areas for traditional CSR activities
  • there is a possibility to create a smooth transition from basic research, to prototyping, then to consumer-driven design, realizing the promises of open innovation idea

In short, the benefits for a corporation are related to visibility, image, maybe sales, but also (and that’s maybe more important) a transfer of knowledge of how to build similar projects inside the firm.

Does it work? I have no idea. Nobody seems to have tried before. And this was the reason the Open Science Foundation was started.

Open Science ecosystem has many problems, but they are at some level all related to money. And unless money flows change, we will see no significant changes in the academic landscape. Scientific landscape will of course change, but majority of the benefits will be reaped by those outside of academia. Industry-funded open citizen science projects is the idea that has a potential to change money flows (by introducing another ones), and as such, to change both academic and non-academic science landscape. And that’s why, after many years of thinking, watching and analyzing, it’s something I’m going after right now. There’s also another important point. I’ve applied for Shuttleworth Foundation fellowship with this idea and I was turned down. One of the concerns was:

However, we are hesitant about the large scale funding of citizen science by corporations. Our concern is that the interests of the corporations will skew the focus and/or outcomes of the scientific research as it does in the traditional, closed scientific environment.

which is something I wholeheartedly agree with. The only way to avoid such a scenario, is the openness and therefore transparency. And if such an initiative does not originate from academic community, we have no leverage to enforce the required level of openness.

So, will it work? Again, I don’t know. Let’s try an experiment.

Coming back to blogging

It’s been almost three years since the last post here and so much had changed in between.

On the scientific front, I’ve entered biomedical field for good. I’m currently starting new line of projects on the systems dynamics of disease states of human organism. It does sounds cryptic, doesn’t it? Basically I’m working on medical conditions that at some level of abstraction are incarnations of butterfly effect. These are (of course) various cancers, but also sudden infant death syndrome. More on that really soon.

On the openness front, things got a bit hectic at some point, when after five years we’ve been essentially forced to close Systems Institute foundation. However, shortly after I was appointed as a president of Open Science Foundation – the organisation founded by my employer, Institute of Biochemistry and Biophysics of Polish Academy of Sciences. Finally, my open science activities are going to have their home. I will work mainly on developing further my idea that large scale citizen science projects can be funded by corporate social responsibility programs (more on that in separate post), but organisation as a whole will work on various aspects of merging scientific world and the real world under the hood of “openness”.

Brief posts now have their place at openlab.pawelszczesny.org (I treat it as laboratory notebook). Main blog will be devoted to longer pieces.

Notes after my workshop entitled “Open Science. What is in it for me?”

In celebration of Open Access Week a few days ago I led a workshop entitled “Open Science. What is in for me?”. Workshop was organized by Kaunas University of Technology & The Lithuanian Society of Young Researchers and took a place in the beatiful city of Kaunas. The slides are below:


I’ve started with a brief overview of what Open Science is and how it relates to the way we conduct and communicate research. In principle, I’ve argued that Open Science is basically an intrinsic feature of science, codified by a set of good research practices. Thefore, it’s hard to be ‘fundamentally against’ Open Science, however not all of the practices of Open Science make sense to everybody and everyone. As many of such practices are the journey off the beaten path (in some fields there’s virtually no social or technical infrastructure for certain sharing practices), in our region (CEE) it makes a lot of sense to be pragmatic open scientist – embrace only those activities which don’t jeopardize one’s scientific career.

Participants of the workshop were young scientists (pre- and post-doctoral) and largely were not previously exposed to such a wide definition of Open Science (although were quite aware of what is Open Access and what are it’s benefits). Therefore I asked them first to brainstorm questions to which “Open Science” or more precise term is an answer for. For example, the valid question would be “What is the mechanism ensuring wide availability of scholarly works?” and Open Access is surely one of good answers. Then, we have collectively created set of personal recommendations for young Lithuanian researchers based on the questions that were brainstormed. We took a question one by one, and tried to form a good research practice that would address the problem in the question, but trying to make the recommendation as achievable as possible. Finally, I asked them individually to choose which one of them would be the most easy for them to actually implement.

Given that most of the participants had a very vague idea of what Open Science is I was very satisfied with the final outcome. See the list of recommendation that they have developed:

  • Submit published works to OA repository
  • Suggest and embrace use of plagiarism checking software at research institutions [this was to provide additional leverage to promote OA; without OA plagiarism checking has limited functionality]
  • Use Open Source to develop new products and services
  • Use social networks, subject repositories, teaching materials and press releases [for distributing one’s research outcomes]
  • Use CC licences and contribute to open networks [this related to maximization of added value of research outcomes]
  • Build professional profile on social networks, actively get in touch with other researchers, conferences (including online)
  • Embrace alternative metrics
  • Communicate ideas through as many channels as possible
  • Earn a trust of online scientists and ask them to comment on your paper [this related to improvement of scholarly works before final publication]
This was all their work – I only helped to put their ideas into words.
It is very practical list of activities that substantially advance Open Science in transparent and energy-efficient manner. Openness has a bright future if young scientists are thinking like that.
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What’s after SEO? Memetic engineering?

Search Engine Optimisation had officially entered into academia when publishers started to provide guides to SEO (here’s example of such guide from Wiley). Of course, authors of scholarly literature have used SEO (often under other names) for much longer, although now it’s official and almost recommended.

I’m interested in SEO for more than 10 years, often experimenting with various techniques (for example, if you look for CLANS, Java software for clustering of protein sequences, my blog post describing the software ranks in Google higher than CLANS’ homepage for majority of keywords). Most of the tricks people use, like the ones described in the Wiley’s guide, are pretty trivial. Scientists are usually smarter than that.

I wonder what will be the level of sophistication of techniques developed by researchers to make their research more visible? Traditional way of getting published in the most prominent journals isn’t for everyone (getting in does not depend on the quality of one’s research, that’s clear). Alternative metrics relying on the clicks, visits, downloads are easy to manipulate, however rarely anyone uses them to reach for a paper. There are few other things to try but ultimately artificial hype has the most potential.

There are already a few examples of people that have built their high position in academia using smart marketing strategy in addition to quite good research output. As much as I can say, in all these cases it was rather catching the opportunity of already growing hype, than engineering it from the scratch. I haven’t seen anyone in science building a hype from the scratch, but there are already examples from industry. But it will happen eventually. Open Science will help in that ;).

Open Access means people die

Reader beware, a rant ahead.

Believe me, I waited 24 hours to calm down before writing this text. But a day passed and I’m still outraged by recent posts of Peter Murray-Rust entitled “Open Research Reports: What Jenny and I said (and why I am angry)” and “Open Access saves lives“. He made there following assertions:

  • close access publishing restricts access to information
  • no access to information means suboptimal decisions, for example in choosing medical treatment
  • therefore closed access means people die
  • which means that open access saves lives

And then he offers some anecdotal evidence supporting this claim.

I would like to offer an alternative view:

  • scientific papers sometime contain false conclusions (whether by a mistake or a fraud)
  • untrained people can use scientific papers with false conclusions as a support for wrong decisions (as many people did with Wakefield’s Lancet paper by not vaccinating their kids)
  • open access means that there will be more potentially harmful papers available to general public
  • therefore open access means people will die

You see? Both claims are based on anecdotal evidence. Both are easy to falsify if you try (and it’s not hard). But there’s more – claiming that Open Access will save lives suggests that access to literature is currently the most crucial problem, at least in medicine. But there far more important problems in health-care, many of which could be solved much faster. If you want to have an impact, please make freely available  summaries of primary literature translated into 60 most popular languages – you don’t need to make it open, free is enough. If you want to have an impact, please make physicians to adopt clinical decision support systems – there are studies showing that between 50 000 and 100 000 people die in the US from diagnostics error alone of which even 75% could be preventable and these mistakes already happen before a physician has a chance to make his suboptimal decision. While I’m not sure both solutions will have substantially more impact in the long run, both will have an impact much faster, because Open Access simply needs time.

Unscientific approach plus ideologization makes Open Access a religion. And I’m not interested in joining religious wars. I’m interested in fixing the problems with scholarly publishing, such as lack of access and outrageous costs. Dear Peter, while I admire your work on openness, by making your language “less nuanced”, as you wrote (and less thought-through as I would say), you’re making my work much more difficult.

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Google’s Panda and the research assessment

Search engine optimization is a fascinating field. I was playing around with the concept, looking for holes in search algorithms or browsers source code a long time ago but I’m trying to catch up with developments a few times a year. Most of Google users haven’t noticed its new algorithm for scoring pages called Panda. It is based on extensive manual assessment of sample websites and quite detailed questionnaire covering such aspects as trust, authority, presence of ads or quality of writing. Looking at the approach and complains it generated on many SEO-related forums I couldn’t help but laugh recalling this cartoon from XKCD:

Now, a cool follow up to this story would be an attempt to use the search results rank to evaluate research manuscript. Imagine listing all keywords for which your papers hit first 10 pages (100 results) of Google Scholar search. As an example – my own papers score 2,8,21 and 22 for “trimeric autotransporter adhesins”.

Arbitrary? Of course – like all other metrics. It’s not going to do wonders, but it has a nice feature – because Google’s algorithm doesn’t seem to care much about citations (my most cited paper has rank 21 for the phrase above, which I would say is quite accurate as the crystal structure had appeared since then and our work is obsolete), we avoid rich-get-richer effect. Other good features are that such measure is harder to gamble than others and it provides rather accurate context-specific description of one’s research area.

But seriously, the beauty of the idea lies elsewhere. If average scientists care about minimal differences between them (whether it’s an impact factor of a journal, or article-level metrics), let’s push the field of research assessment further towards absurdity. Let’s exhaust the field with such ideas, so enough people loose patience, implement whatever can be functional today, and move forward. How many years one can discuss the question “what’s wrong with [scholarly communication/research assessment/science funding] today?”.

To understand fully the reasoning of this post please note that it has been posted in Memetics notebook.