How will an Open-Access System Improve Scientific Research?

From Popular Science.

As science has become increasingly complex and interconnected, even the smallest a-ha instance demands that researchers spend the bulk of their time on grunt work—combing through relevant journal articles that are poorly annotated, begging colleagues for necessary materials (a biologist may need specific cell lines, for instance), and tracking down data sets. As scientific goals grow more multifaceted, the challenges for research and development lie not only in the experiments themselves, but also in the transfer of information among peers.

Enter John Wilbanks, executive director of the Science Commons initiative, and the six-year-old innovation of its parent organization, Creative Commons—an intelligent, understandable copyright that's revolutionizing how everything from photos to publications are shared. Wilbanks and his team (which includes Nobel Prize winners Joshua Lederberg and John Sulston) are focused on three areas where roadblocks to scientific discovery are most common: in accessing literature, obtaining materials, and sharing data.

In June, Science Commons introduced a set of tools to allow authors greater control over papers published in scientific journals. And this week, Science Commons is expanding its Neurocommons project with the launch of an open-source research platform for brain studies. By using text-mining tools and analysis software to annotate millions of neurology papers, researchers worldwide can find relevant information in a matter of minutes.

In five years, if everything comes out as I (Wilbanks) hope, you'll have a system that looks like Amazon for the life sciences. You could click on one thing—a relevant cell line, for example—and get recommendations for related research or tools. You could one-click and order that cell line from a third party instead of having to ask another laboratory to stop doing research and manufacture it for you.

In today's system, you don't get rewarded for sharing. And you sometimes get ahead by deliberately withholding. Even if it's not a matter of deliberately withholding, it takes a great deal of effort to share information with others once you're through with it. It takes common standards to annotate data and databases to hold the data. It takes infrastructure to make sharing work.

The Gates Foundation, is now offering millions for malaria research, and it's contingent on the researchers making it available to share. Sharing maximizes the return on investment in early-stage research. No pharmaceutical company is making money by selling biological knowledge—they make money by selling chemicals. So getting as much of that knowledge as possible into the efficiency of the Web-commerce world is going to make it faster to find those chemicals.


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