Intro to Open Science and Open Data

How did open science, citizen science, and open data get started? Where are they? Why we need it.

At the foundation of open knowledge is open science. Open science has a companion, who should always be a full partner, called open data. We need to have the tools to explore the universe, communicate what we’ve discovered, and build upon that discovery. Unfortunately, this basic ability has been co-opted by organizations that aim to be gatekeepers to knowledge. Organizations like Elsevier, Springer , and Hindawi are operating as these gatekeepers and their reach keeps expanding as they devour smaller publishers and journals.

The cost of this gatekeeping is immense. For one thing, the exorbitant access fees cost universities, other schools, and individuals billions of dollars in fees that could be used for other purposes. There’s also a cost in time and innovation. Why? This happens because these organizations don’t make their decisions to publish based on science but on the possible impact the publication of the article might raise. This leads the organizations to turn down reconfirmations of other studies or marginal increases in the information. This means that, most often, that researchers must resubmit and resubmit before it gets accepted. The cost of time lost is immense. According to Kamila Markram,

“Of the 2 million science articles that are published every year, at least 1 million valid research articles are first rejected and bounced. Just one bounce delays the publication by at least six months. And that means the total delay introduced to publish valid research is at least 500,000 years.”


One might think that this only happens to questionable research products. But, if one only thinks about impact, which is a completely unpredictable result, then you’re likely to mistake what would be an impact. For example, in 2004 Novoselov, Geim, Morozov, Jiang, Zhang, Dubonos, Grigorieva1, and Firsov finally got Electric Field Effects in Atomically Thin Carbon Films published in Science after a year of being bounced back and forth between journals. This study established the science of Graphene and eventually won the Nobel Prize. How many great discoveries are delayed, or just swallowed up, because of the pay-for-access journal companies deciding it wasn’t impactful enough?

Open Science Kickstarted

In 2001 and 2003, several organizations decided to take a new tack related to this issue. The Open Society Institute released the Budapest Open Access Initiative, which was followed by the Bethesda Statement on Open Access Publishing and the Berlin Declaration on Open Access to Knowledge in the Sciences and Humanities . Of course, these are just formal declarations related to smaller efforts in the 80s and 90s such as, which allowed scientist to self-archive their publications and provide access later. Probably the earliest book publisher to provide open access was the National Academies Press, but the movement has been growing stronger ever since. There were a great many projects that became the forbears of the current open science movement. The movement became stronger and stronger over the years.

A significant moment happened in March of 2019 when the University of California stopped negotiating with Elsevier. Elsevier is one of the main causes of the closed nature of a lot of scientific research. The increasing costs associated with using Elsevier for access simply became too expensive. This has started a trend that is changing the industry

The beginnings of this change started in the 1970s and we can thank Philosopher Paul Feyerabend and Biochemist Erwin Chargaff for kicking this off. Feyerabend put for the idea of a return to the “democratization of science.” However, believe it or not, the first mention of the term Citizen Science was in a scientific journal article about UFO research. From its early beginnings, we have seen an eruption of participants, new organizations, and interactions between citizens and professionals in the area.

Citizen Science Takes Off

The rebirth of what is now called citizen science has happened right along with these changes. There was a time when most science investigation was performed by amateurs. Of course, now those amateurs are considered the founders of the current scientific powerhouse. Famous amateurs like Descartes, Newton, Leibniz, and Darwin made very large investments to the realms of scientific knowledge. Our world would not be what it is without them and now we’re adding those kinds of people back into the mix.

We now have a great number of websites and organizations dedicated to promoting and disbursing information between citizens and professionals. From the birth of Seti@Home and Folding@home, we now have websites like iNaturalist, eBird, and Zooniverse. Zooniverse alone has 108 projects covering fields from art to medicine to space science. At the current time, there are two major organizations devoted to citizen science. The Citizen Science Alliance and Zooniverse is connected to the alliance, but adds another 1000+ projects, one million volunteers and five thousand members.

From the early beginnings and as we move to the future, we can look forward to larger participation in the world of open science with the cooperation of citizen scientists. Unfortunately, the world of Open Data has a shorter history and a smaller footprint.

Open Data: The Nascent Beginnings

The sharing of data, even among scientists who openly share the results isn’t as common. Open Data is defined as “anyone can freely access, use, modify, and share for any purpose (subject, at most, to requirements that preserve provenance and openness).” Many things complicate open data. The information is often hidden behind copyrights, privacy rights, and obfuscation. An additional complication is that a standard way to save data does not exist. There are so many fields of research that a single format or protocol may never be discovered. However, we keep working to find ways to share data. Of current interest is the practice of open notebook science, in which the entire research program data is provided online.

How this may be expanded to cover future needs is a field of research that must pushed and pushed and pushed!

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