Monday, January 3, 2011

SPARC Digital Repositories 2010

I attended the SPARC Repositories 2010 meeting in Baltimore on Nov. 8,9, so I am posting a few notes for your enjoyment. This is the third (I think) of these meetings--co-sponsored by SPARC, SPARC Europe, and SPARC Japan--that are designed to promote all types of digital repositories including institutional and disciplinary repositories.

Keynote (Michael Nielsen)
Nielsen, a physicist, talked about the power of group work and "extreme openness" of data in advancing scientific understanding. He described two projects that have been extremely successful and couple that were not. The successful projects were Polymath Projects and Galaxy Zoo.

In the Polymath Projects, very difficult math proofs were solved by a group (37) of mathematicians on a blog. Contributions were made as comments on the blog. Gowers (the organizer) said it was the most exciting thing he had ever done. "Massively Collaborative Mathematics" in Nature is one of the articles about it. Results were published in journals under the collective author name "D.H.J. Polymath" rather than under individual authors. This approach offers a great opportunity for collaborative, open science. How do you preserve all of this collaborative work done on a blog? Currently it is not being preserved, but this poses a real challenge to the digital repository community.

In the Galaxy Zoo project, citizen/scientists have offered their services to classify hundreds of thousands of galaxies drawn from the Hubble Space Telescope archive. More than 250,000 people have taken part in Galaxy Zoo so far, producing a wealth of valuable data and sending telescopes on Earth and in space chasing after their discoveries. Their have been 22 scientific papers based on this work. Some discoveries have been made by "non-scientists", for example, a stay-at-home mom. This type of project broadens the notion of who is a scientist. Citizen science projects bridges the gap between the "scientific community" and society as a whole
Although these two projects have been wildly successful, other scientific social networks have largely failed. Why would a scientist share knowledge on a wiki when:
  • they are not very good
  • this knowledge might help your competitor
  • you won't get any academic credit for it
Successful projects like Polymath and Galaxy Zoo end up with conventional scientific papers. Otherwise there is no academic incentive. It is ironic that scientists are being so timid about this process. We need to strive for "extreme openness", that is, put EVERYTHING out on the web for people to work with. Grant agencies need to mandate certain types sharing and encourage other types. Digital repository folks need to lobby for open access mandates and work with scientists to sustain and preserve their data and develop new tools to utilize them.

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