The Web Was Invented For Science but Sucks At It

Prof James Boyle

The web was invented to further scientific research but it is doing a bad job at it, according to James Boyle. “Right now we are generating scientific information at digital speeds but reading it at analog speeds,” he said.

Scientists face one big challenge, Boyle said. That is accessing information. Despite the amount of research being carried out,  it is hard to get at. It is locked behind paywalls or bureaucratic procedures in universities make replication all but impossible, he said.

Boyle compared that situation to the way people can make decisions about buying a book. If they read about it on a blog, they expect a link to Amazon or some other online store. On Amazon, they can read reviews and make decisions based on other books buyers or reviewers have read.

Professor of Law at Duke University, Boyle was one of the driving forces behind the establishment of Creative Commons, a regime devoted to expanding the range and availability of original works. Most of the original material on this blog, for example, is available free of charge for reuse under the Creative Commons license. He is now focusing his efforts on establishing a similar Science Commons.

creative commons logoBoyle was speaking at the Science Gallery (@sciencegallery) to launch its Open Mind series of talks on science, technology and innovation. The series is supported by law firm McCann Fitzgerald which supports clients with IP issues.

He proposed that incentives be realigned for academics. Promotions or prestige are often conferred on those who publish papers that are frequently cited by others, Boyle said. Kudos should also be given to those whose research or raw data is most re-used by other researchers, he suggested.

“We have done  a really poor job of incentivizing them to do things to improve science,” Boyle said. Meanwhile, it should be public policy that all R&D using taxpayers’ money should be made freely available, he said. The Wellcome Trust already does this for research it funds, he said.

A system modeled on the web would see scientists reading freely available papers and clicking on links to other papers. At the moment, they are all stored independently as PDFs in different databases managed by many different publishers. If the researchers wanted to, they could follow links to purchase data sets or research material, Boyle said.

This would give “better, faster, more efficient science at a lower cost,” he said. “If we did for science what we did for the web I think we could revolutionize science.”  Meanwhile, intellectual property would still be protected as it already is, he said.

The openness endorsed by Boyle would also encourage scientists to look outside of their specialist domains for relevant information, Boyle said. Although they may thoroughly research a certain field, “science, somewhat messily, doesn’t confine itself to disciplines,” he said. He cited the examples of cancer and rheumatology researchers who are both interested in inflammation but end up reading different sets of literature.

In the Q&A portion, Boyle was asked about scientists that did not want to share because their projects failed. He said that was valuable data, too. But if people were embarassed, they could put a positive spin on the outcome by saying, “We have eliminated one of the possibilities.”

Creative Commons logo courtesy of Karin Dalziel on Flickr. Photo of James Boyle courtesy Daniel Erkstam on Flickr.