Anyone can do science – this firm belief is part of why we started the Open Dinosaur Project. In fact, as Matt noted some time ago, there is a whole world of “citizen science” opportunities out there! If you’re addicted to the idea of citizen science, and want to learn about other projects in this vein, head on over to scienceforcitizens.net. They’ve got a whole directory of opportunities in all scientific fields in which you can participate!
Even better, there is a project page for the ODP, and a nifty little blog post by John Ohab with a video message from Matt and me (Mike’s over in England, and Matt and I practically live next door, so you’re stuck with only 2/3 of the project leads). John mentioned that scienceforcitizens.net (which is still in the beta stage, but looking quite nice) encourages all of us to create an account and even member blog posts about our experiences as citizen scientists. If you have a moment, go check it out!
We at the ODP are excited to announce that the project is getting some publicity this week courtesy of a little journal by the name of Nature. A short letter to the editor [subscription required*], written by me, Mike, and Matt, appears in the current issue.
The letter was crafted (at Mike’s suggestion) in response to a series of articles and editorials (freely available here) in the 9 September 2009 issue of Nature, focused on the issue of data sharing and archiving. Right now, data sharing (either pre- or post-publication) is a huge concern in many fields of science. Without accessibility to original data, it is much tougher to verify results, incorporate new data into previous analyses, or use the data for new, potentially unrelated analyses. So, it should be a no-brainer to release the data underlying publications, right?
Not so fast. Some scientists are worried about being scooped (if they release data prior to publication), or losing a competitive edge to colleagues once the “exclusive” data are released (if they release data after publication). In other cases, there is no institutional support for the release of data (which requires time and money, however minimal). Furthermore, the rewards for actually releasing data can be unclear (a critical factor for scholars at the beginning of their careers, who need citations and recognition for hiring, tenure, and promotion).
All of these problems were covered in some depth in the special issue of Nature. Where does the ODP fit into this, and what does our letter add to the discussion?
We felt that the Nature articles did an excellent job of making the case for why data sharing is important to the scientific community. But, it left out one key ingredient – why data sharing is important for the world outside of professional scientists. So, we focused our correspondence on this problem.
For a field like paleontology, there is a tremendous interest in the latest (and even the not-so-latest) research findings. If you follow the Dinosaur Mailing List, the blogosphere, or any other internet venues, you will notice an active and engaged community of both professionals and amateurs. Requests for PDFs, photographs, measurements, and all sorts of additional information are quite common, reflecting an intense fascination with the field.
Public talks, popular web pages, and blogs are great for public outreach. . .but there is a demand for something more. Folks are interested in high resolution specimen photographs. . .specimen measurements. . .cladistic data matrices. So, we argue that for a field with broad public appeal like paleontology, the release of data should be a part of our public outreach efforts in addition to the immediate scientific role of data availability. People get excited by these data!
This is why we started the Open Dinosaur Project, and why we run it as openly as possible. First and foremost, it is a research project. We are collecting data to investigate some interesting questions – and we want these data to be available to other researchers! In our view, the database doesn’t do anyone any good if it stays locked up on one person’s hard drive.
We also benefit when other researchers are open with their data – this project would not be possible if original specimen measurements weren’t published in papers. The ODP thrives on data sharing. Principal components analysis and phylogenetically independent contrasts either didn’t exist or were decades away from paleontological application when Charles W. Gilmore published his monograph on Stegosaurus back in 1914. Without putting too many words in his mouth, I think it is fair to say that he would be quite pleasantly surprised that we’re using his data for something he never intended.
Second, and just as important, the ODP is a public outreach effort. There are many, many “amateurs” who want a chance to participate in real, substantive scientific investigations, and many professional paleontologists who want to contribute to collaborative research efforts. Without the combined efforts of nearly 40 contributors from all walks of life, the ODP would only be a blog with a catchy title and cool logo. All of our project participants have made important contributions, and not just in the realm of data entry. The ongoing discussions on this blog are proof positive of the deep involvement of many, many individuals.
In sum, data sharing is something we believe in. It moves science forward, both by allowing new things to be done with old data, as well as offering opportunities to involve new people in the scientific process. If we scientists are serious about our work, and about communicating our work, data sharing is not just an option. It’s the only option.
Citation: Farke, A. A., M. P. Taylor, and M. J. Wedel. 2009. Public databases offer one solution to mistrust and secrecy. Nature 461: 1053. [link*]
*subscription required; the publication agreement with Nature prohibits us from posting the full text of the article for six months; please contact Andy if you would like a copy of the text.
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.