- Doing open research and having an open lab notebook has many benefits
- Shortens delay of dissemination
- Builds trust between researchers
- Can start fruitful mentorship and collaborative efforts
- On the downside, there is a small chance of your work getting scooped
- Mostly applicable now in areas with smaller research communities
- Publishing in high-impact journal still matters, even for open research scientists
Dr. Rachel Harding is a post-doctoral researcher at the Structured Genomics Consortium (SGC), University of Toronto where she researches the structure of huntingtin, the protein which is mutated with a polyglutamine expansion in individuals suffering from Huntington’s disease (HD). Huntington’s disease is a relatively rare genetic disease that has grave neurological consequences for patients.
Together with SGC, she’s a pioneer of open source biomedical research, as she openly shares her electronic lab notebook on Zenodo. Rachel also summarizes her research in more layman-friendly terms on her blog called labscribbles.com.
What problem does having open lab notebook solve for you?
#1 Dramatically shortens time delay between research findings and dissemination
Even in the age of preprints, scientists are often still releasing information from experiments run years ago. This is not cutting edge by my definition and scientists researching the same condition could often move much faster if findings were shared much earlier on in the research project.
#2 Generate & gather crucial information about technically challenging procedures.
In case in huntingtin, the molecule I am researching, there is very little information available in the traditional literature. We think this is because it is an incredibly complex molecule and running most experiments is quite challenging. This means that every incremental piece of information we can generate is crucial for the community as a whole to move forward.
#3 Generate visibility for our research and build a collaborative research network
We are new to the HD community, so sharing our findings publicly is a great way for us to build visibility as well as trust with other scientists in the community. This is leading to all sorts of collaborations and mentorship opportunities.
Why haven’t more scientists taken up an open lab notebook?
Electronic lab notebooks and blogs have been around for some time. Yet only very few are actually keeping an open lab notebook like Rachel.
#1 Time commitment
Depending on how you choose to communicate your research, this might be a time-intensive workload in which you are not doing science. Rachel says she is keeping an electronic lab notebook anyway. So she can just copy & paste most of her notes directly in Zenodo.
Writing the weekly blog however is more of a time commitment, but one she has found most useful in building connections with patient and advocacy groups which have been incredibly helpful.
#2 Fear of being scooped
Scientists can be predatory (as all humans). So if you are constantly releasing data about your research, another group working in the same direction could take your data and get published before you can, without attributing it to you. This may actually hinder your ability to get published yourself, which is of course very annoying since your career depends on getting published.
The scooping fear is not unfounded, as it can really happen that a group will take some data and publish it within their own work without attributing it back to the original researcher. However Rachel says those cases are rare and the overall benefit of having an open lab notebook outweigh the potential downside from being scooped once in a while.
Is the open research more applicable to certain areas?
Rachel thinks that open research is more applicable now for areas that fewer researchers are working on. This includes for example rare genetic diseases, such as Huntington’s disease. It makes most sense here because
#1 each piece of information is potentially extremely valuable to everyone in that community
#2 the risk of being scooped is lower, since there are fewer researcher ‘nodes’ and the trust between those nodes is likely higher than in a bigger field
What other benefits are there to conducting open research?
#1 Greater clarity
Regularly writing down one’s experiments and especially the explanation for laymen on a blog is really good to keep an eye on the overall scientific question at hand as well as the overall progress.
#2 Build trust
When you share your data with others, you are building trust with them and through that they are more likely to share theirs with you. Having access to more data can really move your research forward faster.
#3 Mentorship opportunities
Through her blog, Rachel has also met several mentors. One is an experienced HD researcher with whom she can now regularly chat about her findings and provides helpful explanations around why the HD community does things the way it does.
#4 Collaborate across teams & time zones very seamlessly.
With data being shared openly, anyone with an interest and an idea to build on the data can do so without asking for permission. As long as they make the proper attribution, this can lead to incredibly productive decentralized collaboration. There is no need to email each other back and forth to get data and negotiate terms. This can dramatically increase the amount of people than benefit from your data and contribute further research and inputs to your own research.
Publishing in high-impact factor journals still matters
Alternative forms of reputation building proposed by the open science community haven’t yet replaced what current faculty look for in research applicants. For the time being, scientists still are going to publish in high impact journals and play the ‘publish or perish’ game.
The current system over promotes individual successes. The first listed author on a paper gets most of the credit. This doesn’t reflect the collaborative nature of the results achieved and we need to find better ways to reward those collaborators.
It remains to be seen what the publishers of scientific journals will say on Rachel’s research, of which a lot of it has already been published online. Because preprints can now still be published, Rachel doesn’t think this will be an issue.
Translating on findings into products with patents?
At bio2040, we care about results. So it is important to us that researchers like Rachel who use the open lab notebook approach can turn their findings into medicines that help patients.
SGC does not patent molecules. Patents are needed to raise money for biotech startups. The money is needed to pay for the very expensive clinical trials.
How does this work if you don’t file any patents?
SGC works on the fundamental science level. So it aims to provide the basic understanding and structure of molecules that can be helpful in the treatment of disease. Other scientists can then take those molecules and create derivative of those which are more suitable to go to the clinics. So the translational scientists can still file patents and turn those compounds into medicine.
Aled Edwards and the people behind SGC are now also experimenting with an ‘open pharma’ approach, where they really attempt to conduct open source drug discovery. See the M4K pharma model for more information. We are hoping to dissect how they do it in a future post.
Checkout Rachel’s work at https://labscribbles.com
Follow her on twitter here: https://twitter.com/LabScribbles
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