Warning: this is a hopelessly idealistic proposal…

As far as I can tell, scientists of all types tend to be secretive about their work prior to publication. I guess the fear is that, without secrecy, another lab might steal the idea and publish it first. But this secrecy comes with several significant costs, one of which is the huge length of time between first having an idea and then getting feedback from peers. First you have your bright idea, then you do the necessary research (which might take years), then you write up a paper, then you submit the paper to a journal or conference and a while later you get your first bit of peer feedback.

This feels extraordinarily inefficient. If an idea is bad then it needs to fail fast (before resources have been expended). And if an idea needs improving then it’s far better to improve the proposal before doing all the work rather than trying to retrofit a fix after the bulk of the work has been done.

How about this as an alternative:

When you first have an idea, you describe it in a few paragraphs and then submit it to an impartial website for comments from your peers. Comments might be along the lines of “Don’t bother because Jo Blogs et al did something similar a few years ago” or “that idea is fundamentally flawed because of X” or “it’s a crazy idea but it might just work: give it a shot; but to convince me you’ll need to demonstrate Y” or “Great idea! I was thinking of doing something similar. Fancy collaborating?

This way, you get very rapid feedback from your peers before you commit large quantities of time and, possibly, money. You also get some protection against people taking your ideas and claiming that they thought of them first (because your ideas have been published; albeit in embryonic form).

You could even do all your research out in the open so peers can identify issues early on.

Why wouldn’t this work?!

To give a bit of background to this blog post:

A few days ago, Fernando Perez (creator of IPython, physicist and general science hero) tweeted a few fascinating quotes from an article in National Geographic:

1:41 PM - 22 Nov 13:

“We’re here sharing science. Science isn’t the answers, science is the process.” Open science FTW @johnhawks http://newswatch.nationalgeographic.com/2013/11/20/rising-star-hominid-what-we-know-and-dont-know/

1:56 PM - 22 Nov 13 and 1:58 PM - 22 Nov 13

“The most important implication of open access is the change in the scientific culture…… When you have a culture of secrecy, you breed people who trade in secrets.”

The article in National Geographic that Perez quotes from is about a high profile piece of academic paleoanthropology where the researchers are doing all their research “out in the open”. They fully plan to publish “normal” papers too. But they’re blogging about all the cool stuff they dig up, and putting photos of their discoveries online (long before they have enough evidence to write a full paper).

Update 10:30 UTC 30th Sept 2013

Wow: the response from twitter to this post has really taken me (pleasantly) by surprise! This is without doubt the nearest I’ve had to something “going viral”.

I tweeted about this blog post at 15:07 on 28th Nov.

Then, last night (29th Nov) at 20:31, OpenScience retweeted my tweet to 18,534 followers and that started a whole stream of RTs (for which I’m very grateful!). At the time of writing, my original tweet has been retweeted 17 times and a “manual RT” from Tom Hartley has been retweeted a further 6 times. There has also been some discussion of this blog post on those two twitter conversations.

I am seriously thinking that I should ask my supervisor if I can run the remainder of my PhD as an experiment in open science and put all my notes, code, results and data online as soon as I generate them ;)