Open Science – more than sharing

Tim Berners-Lee originally envisioned the World Wide Web to help scientists share their knowledge and results. Since then, it has turned into everything but a place for scientists. One of its primary uses is buying and selling goods and services of all kind. Of late, this gigantic virtual market place has also realised the perks of sharing rather than buying. In science, we’re on the forefront of a similar movement called Open Science.

In 2008 we set out with ResearchGate to help scientists embrace the web. We believe scientific data should be shared, used, reused, distributed and discussed. This is the heart of Open Science and it is founded on the principles of Open Source. In the technology industry, Open Source means making code publically available for others to review, build on and add to. The development process is sped up, and better products are brought to the market, faster.

We envision a similar development for science in the future. From my own experience as a researcher, I have learnt how valuable it is to talk to colleagues from different fields about what you are doing in the lab. Previously, I conducted interdisciplinary research at the crossroads of tissue engineering and radiology. If scientists open up their data they can also profit from their peers’ feedback on it.

I also want to change how scientists think. And help them understand that every result they produce is valuable, regardless of whether it confirms a thesis or not. As long as your method is correct, every finding contributes to science. Disclosing every result helps scientists to build on each other’s knowledge, keeps them from repeating the same mistakes and helps drive progress.

Almost as a side-effect but just as important, science will become more transparent.

This will help scientists to recreate, validate and build on existing knowledge. An op-ed in Nature, published In September 2013, shows how valuable reproducibility can be. It was written by two cancer researchers Glenn Begley and Lee Ellis, who revealed that the biotech company Amgen had tried to reproduce 53 published pre-clinical research studies for novel cancer therapies. They only succeeded in six cases. The authors pointed out that for the rest of the landmark studies they were missing big parts of the authors’ original data. As a result, they were therefore unable to confirm their findings.

Begley and Ellis also mention that these potentially flawed studies had triggered a series of clinical studies. This means that patients might have been recruited for trials that were deemed to fail from the start. Worse, a lot of money was probably wasted, too. I believe that this is one reason why Open Science will also be adopted by the pharmaceutical and biotech industry. Opening up data to the scientific community and receiving feedback can help lower development costs and lead to faster results.

However, it is not enough to simply share data. We need to share it in an infrastructure that provides context to the data: what is its purpose? How was it created? Who created it and are the researchers contactable? This information and more needs to be shared along with the data for others to consider it in their discussions and build on the research.

If scientists share their all their results – including raw data and results from failed experiments – in an environment where it can be discussed, evaluated and built on by peers, I believe we will see more progress, faster.

Open Science is not just for scientists, but concerns all of us. I am convinced it will help us to solve the most pressing problems of our times, like finding solutions to the world’s energy crisis, our global food shortage, and cures for deadly diseases.

Ijad Madisch

Ijad Madisch is the CEO and co-founder Research Gate and a physician, who earned his doctorate in the field of virology and studied computer science on the side. Together with his friends, fellow physician Soeren Hofmayer and computer scientist Horst Fickenscher, he founded ResearchGate, back in 2008. Today more than three million scientists from 193 countries use the network to collaborate, share their findings and build reputation. The Berlin-based start-up has attracted a group of renowned investors, including Bill Gates, Benchmark and Founders Fund.

Go back to the Special Issue: Why sharing matters

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