Time to change science?

Posted on Friday, October 5th, 2012 at 12:43

A microscope created in GIMP2Science is a huge conglomerate beastie these days. In the early years of the discipline science was a method applied by a number of relatively rich independent researchers. The researcher then shared their research with similar minded scientists, all desperate for the truth, almost all independently wealthy. Science was a rich man’s hobby, and many saw it as having absolutely no practical value.

Then the sea change occurred, there was the move to monetize science. The first change was that some people who were not independently wealthy began to work in science. Michael Faraday, quit his job as a bookbinder to work at the Royal Institute and hence get some hands on science experience.

Suddenly there was money to be made from science, perhaps not as obviously as the almost certainly apocryphal story of Faraday talking to Gladstone illustrates: “What practical use is electricity? — Why one day, sir. You will tax it!” and perhaps not just in the patents and engineering (although that’s a huge problem in its own right), but the way the journals publish and even research grant money is handed out.

When science was a hobby practiced by the rich and devoted, it was reasonable to spend money on research that went nowhere. You found out something every time you were wrong. And your peers would listen calmly as you presented your results.

But times have changed. Now Journals accept only the new, exciting and surprising research. Who wants to buy a Journal that would be full of articles saying that having replicated another person’s experiment we found the same result, or even a different result. Research grants are handed to researchers who get results, by which I mean, not generate data, but generate the data that is wanted.

This means that enormous pressure is put on scientists, not just to find the truth, but to find the truth the sponsors wanted. Why would a toothpaste manufacturer pay a scientist to find out that their toothpaste destroyed teeth? Of course they wouldn’t. Neither would anyone want to fund research into whether science from the fifties was correct. We would assume it was correct, or it would have been found to be incorrect by now wouldn’t it?

Etc etc…

My proposal is to stop with the Journals. Just as the web and e-readers have lead to an explosion in self-publishing, which has removed publishers controls on content, allowing a flood of great, interesting new genre-fiction that would never make it out of most publishers slush piles to emerge where we can all read it; so, I believe science needs to throw off the shackles of the publishers.

All science conducted in Universities, Colleges and even schools as well as registered corporations that wish to patent products based upon their own research, should be published to one enormous open database, peers can review as they currently do, but all results, positive and negative, would be posted, and included. Do a study confirming another’s work, and your data acts to confirm theirs. Come to a different conclusion, even completely refute their findings, then that would become obvious to anyone accessing their original study. Plagiarism becomes instantly a thing of the past, as direct copying of an article would be instantly spotted by the system itself. And in an ideal world, the original data would have to be uploaded, so that your peers can see that yes, you did interview 10,000 people, or not. Additionally schools and colleges will be able to join in with professional science, extending and refining studies where the science is appropriate to their means.

It won’t stop all the problems, but it has to be a start. Basically the Journal model is flawed, subject to irrational biases based on editors of individual Journals and in many cases more interested in selling Journals than in doing science. My open science proposal would remove the editorial control of Journals on science, and encourage a new generation of student scientists to engage with science on a more professional level.

The leading universities and even governments and businesses could each host the database, sharing the data and papers between themselves, it may not be possible for each university to duplicate the whole database, but this is the internet, distributed databases are possible and even recommended.

What do you think? Does it sounds reasonable, logical or have I missed an important point somewhere?