Share the love: an open exchange of ideas will promote innovation

We have the technology to share knowledge, says Malcolm Read, but researchers need to work towards a culture of openness

August 26, 2010

How is knowledge going to be available in the future, and to whom? This is one of the biggest issues the academy faces today.

The UK higher education sector is trying to weather the great storm of decreasing funding and overstretched resources. To demonstrate value to funding bodies and, ultimately, to taxpayers, researchers are getting mixed messages about the need to publish and disseminate their work and how to do this. Currently, the academic paper remains the linchpin of reputation, but this provides little or no incentive for young researchers to share their findings earlier in the process with their peers in other disciplines.

Despite this tension, there is an encouraging trend towards openness in academic life, which seems like a return to, and an expansion of, the original ideal of a university as a community of scholars. Researchers may work in individual universities, but innovation often happens across institutions, disciplines, even countries. Collaborative websites such as myExperiment provide a way of sharing workflows, allowing, for example, information on sleeping sickness in African cattle to be used for research into better treatment for people in intensive care. And the Joint Information Systems Committee's work in virtual-research environments has given teams at the University of Oxford involved in cancer imaging a means of sharing images, information and algorithms to help advance cures for various forms of the disease.

In many ways we are seeing an "openness revolution" in the way we create, store, analyse and transmit information and research. Institutional or subject-related repositories - where researchers share material, find profiles, comment and learn together - have become a powerful vehicle for the dissemination and sharing of knowledge. With the growth of the information society, universities are no longer the sole guardians of enlightenment for many people, so they must work to assert their role as arbiters of knowledge. The creation of publicly accessible repositories is a signal of their potential contribution.

The technology is already in place to underpin all of this, but leaders in research need to promote a culture of openness. We need the best researchers we can get, and an open flow of ideas can help to engage a new generation of scientists, philosophers, economists and linguists who, through sharing knowledge, can face up to the big issues of the 21st century.

UK researchers are universally respected, but to stay at the cutting edge they will need to scan the globe for innovation and inspiration. They will also have to be able to move between sectors and countries, as a recent report from Universities UK, The Future of Research, suggests. As Rufus Pollock, co-founder of the Open Knowledge Foundation, recently said, by easily sharing material we get the best use of it - "the best thing to do with your data will be thought of by someone else".

And does it matter whether it was the researcher or someone using their data thousands of miles away who made the scientific breakthrough? Not according to David Willetts, the universities and science minister, who recently posed the question: "What exactly is the economic problem if the next scientific discovery originates overseas, rather than here?" Our world now demands research focused on global challenges such as climate change, the elimination of tropical diseases and how to cope with an ageing population. And I agree with Willetts that the contribution of research to the economy and society as a whole "may come best if we encourage openness and innovation, not if we try to micromanage our universities".

This is exactly where the problem lies. Organisations such as Jisc and the British Library are seeking to inspire a content revolution supported by innovative technology. This October, a new exhibition at the British Library, Growing Knowledge: The Evolution of Research, will showcase some of the digital research tools that will transform how we create and share knowledge. But we also need a culture change. Although many have been quick to realise the potential of collaboration, there are limits to openness when research reputation is based on individual contributions.

Only by reappraising the mechanisms for academic recognition can we reflect the work being put into creating and preparing high-quality research. The fresh evaluation of criteria in the UK's research excellence framework is an opportunity to examine where the emphasis should fall. Open access to papers and data continues to improve the impact of our public funds - but in the meantime, digital tools can support informal sharing on levels that can still make a difference to how far one idea can travel.

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