Open science

Science - the human endeavour to learn about how everything from the tiny microbe to the all-encompassing universe works - is a collective enterprise where everyone builds on what everyone else has done. Obviously it works best when what is currently known is available in the public domain so anyone can access it and build further. John Ziman, the British physicist, called it public knowledge. True there is an element of competition and scientists strive hard to be the first and go to great lengths to claim priority for what they have discovered, witness the controversy surrounding the discovery of calculus and more recently the discovery of the HIV virus. But the ruling paradigm in science is one of cooperation and sharing knowledge.
Indeed, when we say science is a collective endeavour of building on what is already known we mean by 'what is already known' all the knowledge produced by people across time and space - by people in all parts of the world going back to ancient times, although in reality most often only work published in the past decade or two really matters. Knowledge knows no boundaries. Unfortunately, what is available to scientists working today is only what is recorded and preserved.
How scientists in a given generation access knowledge from the public domain is largely dictated by technology. For over 300 years print-on-paper was the means by which knowledge was disseminated and the primary research journal with the peer-review system became the single most important vehicle for recording knowledge in the public domain. A few decades ago, some scientists, especially high energy physicists found the system of exchanging knowledge through refereed journals slowed down the pace of research and came up with preprint servers. Today arXiv is very popular among physicists, mathematicians and computational biologists.
With the advent of the Internet and the World Wide Web new opportunities opened up that could bring about dramatic changes in the way scientists can learn from one another and collaborate in virtual space. In recent years researchers have felt the need to open up the very process of research and in certain areas have started sharing nascent knowledge almost as it emerges from the laboratory. Even for-profit drug companies have started taking part in such open science initiatives in areas where no single company is likely to come up with a new drug, say to treat tuberculosis, in a reasonable time and cost. On the other hand, taking advantage of the pivotal role played by refereed journals, some publishers have garnered hundreds of journals and jacked up subscription prices leading to what librarians call the serials crisis. This led to the open access movement, which would eventually be recognised as a game changer of historical dimensions.
In this chapter we will trace the evolution of the notion of open science and the growth of its constituents, viz. open access, open data, open research, and see how opening up of science in a world where the geography of science is changing fast can lead to democratizing knowledge and make science far more participatory. We will see how the interplay of the content and technology would lead to unexpected possibilities and the breakdown of traditional boundaries separating different domains of knowledge. We will devote a section to discuss how open science will have influence far beyond the realm of science - in areas like development, poverty alleviation and health care delivery in the developing world.

Author: Subbiah Arunachalam

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