Show me the data!

Anecdata On Sharing Science

October 1st, 2015 | Posted by rmounce in ARCS2015 - (0 Comments)

[This is my competition entry for the ARCS2015 essay competition hosted at The Winnower. I’m using their excellent WordPress plugin to automagically transfer this post from my blog to their site at the click of a button.]

There’s a 1,000-word limit for this competition, so forgive my brevity. I could easily write ten thousand! These are merely a couple of vignettes.

To really understand why open is better, you should try traditional science. Otherwise, you won’t see all the most awful practices as these are usually hidden from view.

My first peer-reviewed paper was published in a popular glamour magazine called Nature. Most academics read it for the News and Jobs sections, but it also publishes some research articles too. Editorially, it selects research articles for publication on the basis of their news-worthiness which has unfortunate side-effects: significantly more of these stories eventually get retracted or corrected, relative to other journals which focus more on the correctness of the science.

My one-page, one-figure article simply pointed out that an article the magazine had previously published on its front cover was wrong. I wasn’t the only one to notice this either. Amazingly, it took the journal 160 days from submission to publication to publish my small contribution. This was my first author-experience of the vast inefficiency, bureaucracy, and secrecy practised by traditional ‘closed’ science journals.

It was thus made obvious to me from a very early stage of my PhD that there had to be other better, faster, cheaper, more-enriched ways of communicating science available. Nowadays I wouldn’t recommend anyone to use the traditional (read: slow, obstructive, secretive) means of post-publication commentary. If you want to communicate what is poor about a paper published at a traditional journal, writing to the journal is the very least effective means of doing so. Use PubPeer, PubMed Commons, blogs, Twitter, or even The Winnower for post-publication peer-review.  Making incisive, well-communicated points about research you have read, and sharing these thoughts, openly for others to read and comment on, is a valuable skill. Although hard to evidence, I believe I have gained respect and wider exposure for doing this myself, as have others e.g. Rosie Redfield whom I would not have heard of were it not for her excellent critique of the #arseniclife paper (for those who don’t know the about it: the original paper was published in another glamour mag, and was also subsequently formally-rebutted with neutrally-titled ‘Technical Comments‘ 177 days after online publication, despite Rosie’s much more timely blogged-rebuttal which went online 2 days after the initial publication). I’m not alone in thinking these are glaring examples of how traditional science communication is broken.

Even simply sharing your research talk slides online can be hugely beneficial for your career

Another thing I learned by experience, early-on in my PhD was that there’s a problematic absence of data supporting many research articles. To put it more bluntly; most articles have pretty figures and lovely prose but many simply don’t make the underlying data available. I discussed this at length, with evidence in a conference presentation at the Young Systematists Forum, 2010. I pro-actively put my talk slides online to share my ideas on this with the world and with the help of Twitter, this one small act of sharing a conference presentation directly-led to a multiplicity of benefits:

  • I was invited on to the council of the Systematics Association, so I can try to influence the future direction of the society towards data sharing, open access, and better publishing (it’s work in progress, large committees have a tendency to change slooooooowly)
  • I was invited to join an international collaboration to document the lack of data archiving for phylogenetic studies, which was published in 2012, in an open access journal, and has been cited 18 times so far
  • It also led to my first invited speaking slot at the Open Knowledge Foundation conference in 2011 (OKCon), which in turn helped me become aware of and successfully apply for one of the first Panton Fellowships for Open Data in Science (£8,000)

So one small act of sharing directly-led to Fellowship money, many speaking invites, additional publications/collaborations I wouldn’t have otherwise been involved with, and genuine influence within an academic society. Sharing my presentations, my ideas, my data, and of course my publications has clearly benefited my career, and if anything I’m only likely to go more open with my research in future, rather than less!

As my title alludes to, I’m well aware my stories are just anecdata. This isn’t an objective assessment of the benefits of open science, but the logical basis of the benefits are clear nonetheless: if you don’t share your work, less will know of it. Share freely and openly and you may find yourself with many more beneficial opportunities as a result. Go forth and upload your work today!