Reading Michael Nielsen’s ‘Reinventing Discovery’

Recently I managed to sneak in some non-fiction and non-paper reading – books about science geared towards the general public. I’d like to share my thoughts about these books with you, and will start with Michael Nielsen’s book ‘Reinventing discovery: The new era of networked science’.

In short, Nielsen argues that in the age of the internet, fast computers and clever programs, the way we do science and indeed the way we think about knowledge needs to change – it has started to change already, and will change even more. Eventually he expects this change to be revolutionary.

He starts the book by introducing some projects that would have been impossible in the pre-internet era. For instance, in the Polymath project, mathematicians from all over collaboratively work on particular mathematical questions. Many citizen science projects also invite collaborators, not only scientists but also lay people – you can do something for science too! For example classify pictures from the universe at Galaxy zoo, or predict how proteins fold at Foldit. (In fact, there is so much cool stuff you can do I might reserve some other projects I found for a separate blog post. If you want to start looking for something that interests you, check out the list of citizen science projects on Wikipedia.)

The middle part of the book focuses on the current state of how science is done, and what is going wrong. For instance, why is open science not widely adopted? While Nielsen’s descriptions are to the point, I found they did not go much beyond what I experience in my daily life is a scientist.

However, Nielsen makes up for that in the last two chapters, where he suggests concrete steps that can be taken by anyone inside and outside the scientific enterprise. Let me paraphrase:

Currently, evaluation in science is based on the reputation of scientists, with the underlying currency of papers and their citations. (We all know that citations are a very imperfect way to measure influence and reputation – but they are measurable, and that makes them attractive.) This citation-based economy is a social convention which we can use and expand, by starting to use citations not only for papers, but also for preprints, data sets, science blogging, or whatever other form of scientific communication you can imagine. This way, the economy based on reputation still stands, but the reputation can encompass many more things than just papers. This in turn will make things such as putting a manuscript on a preprint server, writing a science blog or doing outreach much more attractive to scientists, as they would not be ‘wasting their time’, but building their reputation and therefore their career. Or in Nielsen’s words: ‘citation leads to measurement leads to reward leads to people who are motivated to contribute’.

There is one thing that Nielsen does not mention, which is something that researchers do, and is also generally held in rather low regard: teaching. And with this, I do not see how it can be integrated into the citation-based reputation described above. Any ideas?

Other than that, the last two chapters really make up for a frustrating read in the middle of the book (yes, I know lots of things are going wrong in science – I see it every day!). Nielsen’s vision for the future of science is a ‘data web’ – a kind of internet of knowledge, that is not only human-readable but also machine-readable.generating a different kind of evidence that we need to come to terms with.

Science will evolve, and Nielsen shows what we can do now – let’s do it!

You can also judge for yourself with Nielsen’s TED talk.

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