What should the scientific record look like in the digital age?

By Julia Schölermann

A guest blog post by Julia Schölermann in preparation for SpotOn London 2013

"If the double helix was so important, how come you didn't work on it?" - was the somewhat harsh comment that Ava Helen Pauling allegedly directed at her husband Linus when the Nobel Prize for the discovery of the molecular structure of DNA was announced. In fact, Linus Pauling had worked on the problem - he, like so many others, had tried to solve the riddle that started many years earlier, in 1869, with the first description of an acid substance in cell nuclei.

The history of research and discoveries around the make-up of DNA illustrates the two-sided coin at the very heart of the advancement of science: Building upon each others' ideas is the fuel for great discoveries - Watson and Crick relied solely on models and experimental data published by other research groups of the time, such as Pauling's. These very same ideas and the data supporting them, however, are scattered around and locked into static articles, their publication is sluggish and individual researchers' contributions become blurred or even lost. Digital technologies have the power to seamlessly integrate these two sides: Innovating around the structure and preparation of the scientific record therefore has the potential to speed up and improve scientific progress.

Carole Goble, Professor of Computer Science and head of the Information Management Group at the University of Manchester, advocates a fundamental change in the scientific workflow. She argues that research products should be released much like software is. Continuous release - as opposed to publishing one by one - allows for aggregation of information and amalgamation of threads of narrative, methods and results. This ultimately leads to a continuous stream of scientific contributions that facilitates the crucial learning based on each others' ideas. Prof. Goble heads a multitude of projects that are dedicated to the development of tools that solve information management problems for scientists of various disciplines.

Solving the structure of DNA surely was no overnight success - many influential scientists shared their thoughts in formal and less formal ways and should therefore be thought of as contributors. Indeed, Lambert Heller argues that modern digital age research information systems should be able to handle a broader range of research products. After all, informal online exchange of scientific ideas is ever expanding. In order to automatically aggregate contributions, metadata harvesting tools have to be put in place - something that Heller is professionally interested in as head of the Open Science Lab at the German National Library of Science and Technology.

Evidently digital technologies have made, and will continue to do so, the everyday work of scientists more efficient. John Hammersley and John Lees-Miller, both PhD mathematicians, founded to contribute their bit to let scientists do science. WriteLaTeX is an online interface that allows for the creation, sharing and editing of scientific ideas using the document markup language LaTeX - think google docs with beautiful output. What is more, writeLaTeX integrates with document management systems of journals and even figshare - an online platform to store and share research data under a Creative Commons license, rendering the data citable.

Writelatex ipad publish screenshot

60 years ago, Watson and Crick were allowed a sneak peek at Rosalind Franklin's X-ray crystallography photographs and changed genetic engineering forever. This discovery has since been bringing about considerable advantages for mankind, starting with the introduction of recombinant insulin in 1982.

Consider what we all can achieve together if the Rosalind Franklins of today more frequently released their data, for example on platforms like figshare, if ideas got integrated and we all were allowed to stand on each others' shoulders. With the right tools in place, all original contributors will be able to be adequately acknowledged and credited - an issue that still stirs controversy in the case of elucidating the structure of DNA.

Join us at the SpotOn conference in London on Friday Nov 9th 3-4 pm to discuss the possibilities and implications of rethinking the scientific record. Join the conversation live on twitter using #solo13digital or read our session notes - prepared collaboratively and on the fly using and pushed to figshare at the conclusion of the session.

Please also consider adding relevant tools to the google doc accompanying this session. All contributions are welcome!