Open source science

Janet Babin Mar 28, 2007

Open source science

Janet Babin Mar 28, 2007


BOB MOON: Maybe you’re familiar with the term “open source.” Usually it’s used in the context of describing computer software. Linux, for example, a program that’s publicly available, free, and users have a hand in creating or changing it. Well this whole idea of porous knowledge and mass collaboration has begun to take off in the science lab too — but, as Marketplace’s Janet Babin reports from the Innovations Desk at North Carolina Public Radio, some old-school rules may be holding things back.

JANET BABIN: Good science is time-consuming. Just think how many years researchers have been working on cures for AIDS and cancer.

Chemistry professor Jean-Claude Bradley says one reason things take so long is that a lot of lab work never sees the light of day.

JEAN-CLAUDE BRADLEY: Most of what we do in the lab is failed experiments. That information typically is not shared.

If it could be shared, Bradley says researchers wouldn’t have to repeat failed experiments, and could save time. So he decided to try something new. He and his students at Drexel University now post all of their lab experiments on a wiki, or website, for anyone to see.

And they’re not just working in the hypothetical — they’re searching for chemical compounds that could fight malaria.

Bradley says he purposely chose a disease was largely being ignored by pharmaceutical companies.

BRADLEY: There’s not a lot of money in malaria. The people who are sick don’t tend to have a lot of money, so it’s actually a really good application for this kind of work.

The concept of sharing scientific research is so new, Bradley’s coined a phrase for it: open notebook science.

But openness comes with a price: Bradley’s online lab page has a disclaimer: any contributions made on the site are given over to the public domain. No lucrative patent deals, no blockbuster drugs.

Dr. Bob Cook-Deegan at Duke University says in a corporate setting, shareholders wouldn’t likely open their wallets for open science.

BOB COOK-DEEGAN: If what you’re basically creating is information, and then you’re sharing it for free with everybody in the world, you’re never going make them any money, they’re going to think you haven’t used their money very well and they’re not going to be very happy with you.

Even in academia, open science has drawbacks. Posting lab results online can make it difficult for researchers to publish their work in a respected journal.

Monica Bradford is executive editor at Science Magazine.

MONICA BRADFORD: Anything posted online is a publication. You know, our policies are having to evolve and we have to watch these different developments, but our conditions for submission say that you have to say you have not already published the material that you’re submitting to us for review.

Bradley will come up against those policies soon. He and his students are almost ready to present their data in print. Bradley says they’ll keep looking for a journal willing to break grnd and publish their results.

I’m Janet Babin for Marketplace.

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