Science, open tools, and standards

Posted on August 8, 2010


So, 11000 words into my project report and what have i learn?
That scientists and engineers can be stupid, even childish, in certain ways.

I'm talking about standards and openess. It seems that everyone is so obsessed/impressed by their own research area, no one thinks about the bigger picture.

Maybe bigger picture is wrong. More diffused picture rather: all the small things that matter in the long run. Like agreeing on how things are done, how documents are managed, how instructions are saved and updated. People are creating tools for thier research with no consideration of how other people may need to use them, or whether existing tools should be used and improved.

Vast libraries of code have been written which never leave a particular lab. Everywhere people are duplicating effort because no one thinks to spread their code. I'm personally using a program whose functionality i'm certain people are right now re-creating without thinking to see if it already exists. Certainly no one here seems bothered to tell anyone they've made it. Worse still, I feel it may even be offensive to some to suggest sharing it (though suggest it i will) – people are understandably very attatched to the work they've done, but to let this attatchment limit the usefulness of this code is quite childish.

I suppose this is really a call for open science. Open source software has allowed people's work to spread and multiply. Though duplication still abounds, at least the opportunity is there to re-use work and to spend your time improving it rather than reinventing it from scratch.
I believe this will have to happen to keep science effective. Universities lack the funds to pay people to re-invent the wheel. Much as it may sadden senior professors, at some point they will have to become managers of their research groups – coordinating to acheive efficient work at the expense of direct involvement in their research. It may be less fun. But its not fun trawling through vast dumps of ill-documented research to find out what the hell is going on either.

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