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Engineering the shiny digital future

This is slightly off-topic, but only slightly. Today ODP co-founder Mike Taylor had a paper published in the Bulletin of Zoological Nomenclature on the inevitability of electronic publication. You can read the paper here and some of Mike’s thoughts on it here.

Why is this relevant at ODP? In short, we could not have launched this project 10 years ago. Not enough of the relevant literature was available online at all, and very little of it was available for free. But as Mike writes, the world has changed. Almost all journals either have an online presence or at least give PDFs to authors who then make them available, so a large proportion (but not all) of new scientific literature is available online, often immediately, often for free (but not often enough). Furthermore, there has been a big push to get a lot of the older literature scanned and uploaded as well–the American Museum of Natural History is a standout example here, and especially relevant for us since so many dinosaur descriptions have been and continue to be published in AMNH journals.

These are all good things. But they’re not finished–Mike’s paper is just the latest salvo in what has been and will be a very long struggle. And they’re not enough.

We launched ODP because we believe that the division between scientists and non-scientists is both artificial and harmful. Nowadays projects like this go under the heading of citizen science, or the involvement of laypeople in scientific research. Before the 20th century there was no need for the term ‘citizen science’ because publicly supported science didn’t exist. All science was done by ordinary folks, some of whom were were independently wealthy but many of whom worked regular jobs and practiced science in their spare time. The rise of publicly supported science as a profession in the 20th century led to amazing advances, but we lost something along the way, which is the idea that anyone can contribute to human knowledge.

The longest-running citizen science project is the Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count, which has been running since 1900. Many other birdwatching projects are coordinated by the Cornell Ornithology Lab. Looking farther out, the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) is a network of citizen scientists who have been collecting data on variable stars since 1911. More recently, astronomy and space science have benefited tremendously from the contributions of citizen scientists to projects like SETI@home, Stardust@home, and Galaxy Zoo. More extensive lists of citizen science projects are available at this Wikipedia page. I’m a citizen scientist myself, and participate in Galaxy Zoo and the various astronomical surveys in my spare time. Even if you decide that the ODP is not for you, I encourage you to find a citizen science project that captures your interest. It’s a chance to do real, useful work in a field in which you may have an interest but no opportunities, until now.

What sort of effects will we see from the rise of ‘citizen scientists’–or, in the longer term, the erosion of the wall between scientists and the public? Hopefully societies (and, crucially, electorates) that are generally better informed, more curious, more alert, and more engaged. And scientists who think of the public not as some strange crowd that have to be “reached” by various arcane ways, but as a vast source of information, advice, and assistance. And Science-with-a-capital-S that belongs to everyone, not just because the results are broadly communicated but also because they were broadly generated.

That’s Open Science. That’s the world we want to live in. And that’s the future that we need your help to build.

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Categories: Shiny Digital Future

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