How do we solve the incentive problem in open research

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The Problem[edit | edit source]

Michael Neilson describes the problem here:

"I'd like to describe a failure of [open collaborative research]. It occurred in 2005 [...] A grad student at Caltech named John Stockton had a very good idea for what he called the "Quantum Wiki," or "Qwiki" for short.

"[...] The idea of the Qwiki was that it was going to be a great repository of human knowledge, much like Wikipedia. But instead of being focused on general knowledge, it was going to be focused on specialist knowledge in quantum computing. It was going be kind of a super textbook for the field, with information about all the latest research, about what the big open problems in the field were, people's speculation about how to solve the problems, and so on. Like Wikipedia, the intention was that it would be written by the users, in this case, by experts in quantum computing. I was present at the conference at Caltech in 2005, when it was announced. And some of the people who I spoke to were very skeptical, but some of the people were very excited by the idea. They were impressed by the implementation; they were impressed by the amount of initial seed material which had been put on the site; and most of all, they were excited by the vision. But just because they were excited, didn't mean they wanted to take the time themselves to contribute. They hoped that other people would do so. And in the end, nobody, essentially, was really all that interested in contributing. If you look today, except in a few small corners, the Qwiki is essentially dead.

"And, sad to say, this is quite a common story. Many scientists, in fields ranging from genetics to string theory, have tried to start science wikis along very similar lines. And typically, they've failed for essentially the same reason. It's not just science wikis, either. Inspired by Facebook, many organizations have tried to create social networks for scientists, which will connect scientists to other people with similar interests. So they can share things like data or code, their ideas and so on. Again, it sounds like a good idea. But if you join one of these sites, you'll quickly discover that they're essentially empty. They're virtual ghost towns. So what's going on? What's the problem here? Why are these promising sites failing?

"Well, imagine that you're an ambitious young scientist. [...] You really would like to get a job -- a permanent job, a good job -- doing the work that you love. But it's incredibly competitive to get such jobs. Often, there'll be hundreds of very highly qualified applicants for positions. And so you find yourself working 60, 70, 80 hours a week, doing the one thing that you know will get you such a job, and that is writing scientific papers. You may think that the Qwiki is a wonderful idea in principle, but you also know that writing a single mediocre paper will do much more for your career and your job prospects than a long series of brilliant contributions to such a site. So even though you may like the idea and you may think it will advance science more quickly, you find you just can't conceive of it as being part of your job. It's not.

"[...] There is so much knowledge that is still locked up. I spoke with one bioinformatician who told me that he'd been "sitting on the genome of an entire species for more than a year." An entire species. And in other parts of science, it is routine that scientists hoard their data. They hoard the computer code that they write that could be useful, potentially, to other people. They hoard their best ideas. And they often hoard even the descriptions of the problems that they think are most interesting.

Michael Neilson is pointing to two ways in which the incentives of academics would prevent them from doing open science.

  1. Academics have nothing to gain from contributing to something like an open research projects.
  2. Academics are too busy spending all their time trying to publish in academic journals to contribute to open research projects.
  3. Not only do they not have positive incentives to contribute to open research, they actually have a disincentive. Academics hoard their ideas, data, code, and even interesting questions because academia is essentially competitive. If someone else publishes your idea before you, you don't get the prestige of being the first person to present the idea. So academics have a disincentive to share their most interesting work.

So the people who know the most about different scientific and academic topics may have no reason contribute to open research (and something like this wiki), and in fact they may have incentives that go precisely in the opposite direction.

Possible Solutions[edit | edit source]

Again from Neilson in that same ted talk:

"If you are a scientist, then there are things that you can do. You can get involved in an open science project, even if it's just for a small fraction of your time. You can find forums online where you can share your knowledge in new ways, ways that allow other people to build on that knowledge. You can also, if you're more ambitious, start an open science project of your own. If you're really bold, you may wish to experiment with entirely new ways of collaborating, in much the same way as the Polymath Project did. But above all, what you should do is be very generous in giving credit to those of your colleagues who are practicing science in the open and to promote their work.

"If you are not a scientist, there are also things that you can do. My belief is that the single most important thing that we can do to give impetus to open science is to create a general awareness amongst the population of the issue of open science and of its critical importance. If there is that general awareness, then the scientific community will inevitably find -- it will be dragged by the population at large in the right direction. There are simple things you can do. You can talk to your friends and acquaintances who are scientists and just ask them what are they doing to work more openly. Or you can use your imagination and your personal power to raise awareness in other ways. We're talking about changing not just what scientists do but what grant agencies do, what universities do and what governments do. And you can influence all of those things.

This wiki is an attempt to provide a space for people to collaborate on open science if they want to. That doesn't solve the incentives that go contrary to open collaboration, but we're hoping that it will at least reduce the friction for the people who do want to work in an open and collaborative way.