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Hello!  Is this thing on?  The last 12 months have seen significant life changes (seemingly successful) for many of the people within and around the OWW community.  Because OWW is a community (of researchers) we are past due for an update on how we are doing and open discussions of where we might want to be heading.

First, a few of the changes:

  • All of the founding researchers who created and obtained funding in support of OWW managed to  earn their PhDs from MIT.  Many of these folks have successfully launched a new company, Ginkgo BioWorks, in order to help make biology easy to engineer.  Indeed!
  • Lorrie LeJeune, who was our Managing Director was lured away to become a Senior Editor at Nature Education, which is an incredible opportunity for her to impact the lives of many learners.  Good luck Lorrie!
  • The Endy Lab wound down at MIT and has been reborn at Stanford.  Personally, I’ve moved twice, sold one condo, bought one house, helped to design and manage the construction of a new laboratory, and have been assembling a new research team.  Phew.

Second, what’s not changed:

  • Bill Flanagan remains gainfully employed at MIT, working to make OWW better and helping to put out the fires that flare up.  Simply put, Bill is an incredible resource for OWW and we are ridiculously lucky to have somebody at his skill level and with his strategic perspective at the heart of OWW.
  • We currently maintain funding from the US National Science Foundation in support of OWW.  To clarify one point in the recent and fantastic article by Jakob Sukale, the NSF grant expires 30 April 2010.  This grant currently pays for Bill’s salary and our server costs.  We are currently underspending on this grant and I will likely ask for a no-cost extension which, if granted, could extend our existing funding runway to April 2011.

Third, who is OWW?

  • I’ve found it very useful to understand who is actually using OWW.  I’d suspected that some people tend to talk about OWW and openness in research but that fewer folks are actually living the dream, so to speak.  Well, turns out that thanks to Bill, OWW maintains a statistics page here.  There are ~6000 registered OWW users (roughly doubling over the past year).  About 50 different users make edits to OWW pages on any given day.  About 500 unique users make edits each month.  Over 100,000 unique visitors browse OWW each month. This is incredible!
  • From a different perspective, OWW is incredibly small.  We also represent a broader experiment in changing the process of research that is very much in a fragile intermediate stage of its development.  Michael Nielsen did a good job of capturing some of the issues in his recent article, “Doing Science in the Open.”  Stated differently and from a personal perspective, I would currently be hard pressed to make a successful argument that supporting and using OWW has made the research in my own laboratory significantly better, as judged by our traditionally published results.  On the one hand, we had a great experience using OWW as a platform for developing a shared reference standard for measuring promoter activity in vivo. On the other hand, using OWW as it exists today has led to increased frustration with the slow inanities to be found within the conventional research publication process, while simultaneously and naively reducing the pressure to publish more formally and enabling others outside the (v. small) OWW community to “borrow” results without giving credit.  Perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising. All said, I’m more invested in OWW than ever before, and am convinced that we are figuring out a new way to do research.  We just have a lot of work to do in order to make the transition complete.

So fourth, what’s happening in terms of thinking about where we might go?

  • Lorrie LeJeune and Jason Kelly did a tremendous job exploring the entire process of research, from brainstorming ideas to promulgating results.  Some of these ideas are summarized here.  Many interesting questions and debates arise from considering this framing.  For example, is OWW about the information and knowledge maintained on our servers, or is it about the community of researchers that produces this content?  (personally, I think that the answer is both).  Stated  differently, should OWW support the process of research or should we focus on the capture and promulgation of research results?  (again, I’d vote both).  As a different example, does OWW exist primarily in order to stand as a shining beacon of openness in research, or are we simply trying to make the research process better which, given today’s information and communication technology platforms, tends to select for doing many more things in the open? (more on this third example below).
  • Bill Flanagan and I have been churning through the exciting opportunities that seem to continuously emerge given ongoing advances in information and communication technologies.  Some people refer to OWW as a wiki.  This makes me cringe.  Wikis are great but we likely need to transcend this framing in order to best realize solutions that could be developed in service of our community and our work.  You can find many early examples of this, such as Bill’s pilot efforts to integrate OWW with online document systems (e.g., Google Docs).

So, where should we go?  My own sense is that we should go meta and support the integration of many web-based tools and communities in support of making the research process better.  We will end up doing many more things in the open as a result.  We also need to partner more effectively with existing modes and channels of peer review and recognition.  But this is just my sense, so please chime in with your two cents, either via our Google discussion group, in the comments below, or by editing the appropriate OWW page.  We need to hear from the people who are depending on OWW, or who would use OWW if <blank> happened.  Also, for those of us for whom OWW is an essential part of our research existence, please participate in discussions about how to best guarantee the future funding of our operation.  We have time to work through different models, but need to start doing so now. Our Discussion list is
just a click away
.

Cheers, Drew