Breakthroughs of the year 2009 in Open Science: the Polymath Project and Article-Level Metrics

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Two weeks ago, I invited suggestions as to what may have been the breakthrough of the year in open science. On the basis of the candidates that came up (plus a few that I had on my own list), a poll was then set up for everyone to vote their preferences by ranking the following candidates (listed in random order, as in the poll, but this time with links):

What is your breakthrough of the year in open science?
(Rank the candidates you support!)
1 candidate will be elected.

Candidates 1st 2nd 3rd 4th 5th 6th 7th 8th 9th 10th 11th 12th No
Article-level metrics replace Journal Impact Factor at PLoS
Other (please specify at )
MIT adopts campus-wide Open Access mandate
Nature Communications launched
Royal Society of Chemistry acquires ChemSpider
American Chemical Society announces move to "online only"
Springer buys BioMed Central
CC0 officially released
Climate Gate leads mass media to discuss Open Data
Polymath Project launched
Genome 10k Project launched
Personal Genome Project launched

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The poll is now closed, and depending on how you look at the results, the winner is either the Polymath Project (above) or the Article-Level Metrics (below) that replaced the Journal Impact Factor at PLoS: The Polymath Project was most often ranked first (a total of 6 times), while the Article-Level Metrics (4 times first-ranked) were generally ranked higher than the Polymath Project in the remaining ballots:

The final result (details of the procedure are given here):

Although the total of 18 ballots cast is far from being representative of even the still small open science community, I think this split result is fairly representative of the developments we saw this year: On the one hand, there were important movements related to providing access to research data and to the "published" (but so often inaccessible) literature. These did not just involve the "usual suspects" (i.e. Open Access publishers like PLoS, BioMedCentral, Hindawi, Frontiers, Copernicus and numerous others) but also traditional publishers (Springer buying BioMedCentral, Nature Publishing Group launching Nature Communications as its first Open Access journal), scholarly societies (Royal Society of Chemistry and American Chemical Society), databases (ChemSpider) and a university (MIT).

On the other hand, several multilateral research projects are on track to make science in their field more open (Polymath, Personal Genome, Genome 10k), and it is no surprise that the one that actually delivered results was ranked highly: Polymath started out with a specific mathematical problem that was solved collaboratively within about six weeks — way faster than any classical research collaboration could have managed to write up a proposal, get it positively reviewed and funded, hire someone and simply get them started, let alone come up with the (non-trivial) solution on their own (interestingly, the formal write-up into a preprint then took about half a year).

Also interesting is that, in addition to all these directly research-related structures, issues pertaining to open science have now even reached legal code (CC0) and the mass media (Climate Gate), both of which played an important role in one of the worst disservices to Open Science this year, the infamous Heidelberg Appeal.

Having come so far and being conscious of what science could look like already today, one of the naturally ensuing questions is what developments to watch in 2010. First thing to notice is that none of the above-cited ones are likely to be the end of their respective lines — there will certainly be more experimentation with Open Access publication formats and business models, metrics that operate on the level of articles (or database entries, wiki edits, or individual authors) instead of the journal level, and debate about the appropriateness of current copyright law in scientific contexts, or about the role science can and should play in political decision-making, including research funding.

Beyond this, there are many interesting developments, hard to summarize concisely, and so I will stick to some personal favourites here: I am curious to see what comes out of a grant proposal that was collaboratively written in the open and of two similar projects whose funding already got approved — all having to do with constructing platforms for massively collaborative science. I definitely expect interesting developments in the world of wiki-based and similar knowledge environments, particularly the Citizendium and PLoS Currents, while keeping an eye open for potential surprises of the kind provided by Google Wave earlier this year (a good reminder of the anatomy of the hype cycle and of herding effects), or by the Exquisite Corpse of Science project.

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