Perspectives: The Expanding Field of Open Science

In February 2001, a special issue of Nature included the first draft of the publicly funded Human Genome Project. Carried out by the International Human Genome Sequencing Consortium, the project concluded a decade of international public effort to determine the human genome sequence and make it available, not just to the scientific community, but to the public at large. The magnitude and importance of this open science project created an incentive for scientists to find novel ways of collaborating.

Scientists and funding agencies are increasingly pushing for more access to, and a wider distribution of data, where research projects produce transparent data protocols that can be easily published and accessed by anyone. This article explores some of the elements that inspired open science, describes specific applications, and presents some of the advantages to such an approach.

The spirit of the open source movement has had a significant influence on the way some life science projects are now conducted. Open source is traditionally associated with computer software, which refers to an open and collaborative development of code that can be freely used, adapted and distributed. Linux, an open source operating system, is a popular example of a concept that has inspired many other applications, such as open data, open access publications and open standards. Another well-known example is Wikipedia, which follows open source principles, allowing anybody to add or edit online content within the encyclopedia.

Although there is no established definition of open science, it typically includes: transparency in the experimentation process; publicly available data; and the use of tools to assist scientific collaboration and to distribute results (for example, the EnsEMBL project developed an open source code to deal with the annotation of the genome and freely distributes genomics data on its website).

One of the key elements of any open approach is an alternative type of licensing mechanism that, for example, allows the author to protect his or her work but still freely distribute it. Such licenses can be delivered by projects such as the not-for-profit Creative Commons (CC) or the GNU Project. Creative Commons allows the owner of the content to choose between six types of license categories; for example, one may choose to give data rights for non-commercial use only. This type of licensing tool permits the sharing of data without the restriction of traditional copyrights. Notably, in 2007, Science Commons, a satellite project of the CC, was created to provide licensing tools to specifically meet the needs of scientific research.

In terms of data access, there are countless examples of large life science projects promoting free and open access to data, such as the HapMap project. This international, collaborative effort, between academia and the private sector, aims to map out genomic variations in the human population. The intent is to make the data freely available to the scientific community to promote integration with other genomic data, helping to drive medical research into the genetic basis of heritable diseases. The Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF) promotes sharing of biodiversity data as a tool for mitigating the biodiversity crisis. For example, the data in GBIF allows scientists to observe changes in the ranges of invasive species, which can have huge economic and social impacts. These types of projects allow scientists from all over the world to share and integrate data on a common platform.

The open science concept has naturally found many applications beyond data sharing. Open source software development in scientific fields, such as bioinformatics, is an obvious example. Availability of various open source scientific software applications (see Wikipedia for a list) has drastically increased in recent years. Other novel applications have also been developed. For example, the not-for-profit organization Cambia, aims to develop alternative types of licensing on agricultural technologies. The Open Source Drug Discovery project also uses the open science model, in this case for drug development for neglected diseases. Finally, in the area of scientific publishing, journals such as the Public Library of Science (PLos) or Biomed Central, have an open access policy, promoting free access to scientific research and findings.

Clearly, an open science approach presents many advantages. On a more fundamental level, it promotes transparency and integrity in research, as the temptation to defraud is diminished when one's work can be accessed by the broader scientific community. Scientific experiments also become easier to reproduce when the articles, data and software source codes are accessible to all. As a result, open science facilitates collaboration, encouraging the development of common standards that make it easier to integrate data with other projects. It also gives a broader audience access to this information (not just those who can afford to pay). There are some criticisms of open science, particularly regarding its application within the private sector; however, these discussions are beyond the scope of this article.

Emmanuel Mongin is a Research Associate at the Council of Canadian Academies. He holds a PhD in human genetics from McGill University as well as a Master’s degree in biomolecular sciences from the University of York, UK.

Works Cited

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