Challenges with Collaboration in Open Science

On Thursday I silently switched my ONS claim from all-content, instant (aci) to all-content, delayed (acd). This wasn’t just an admission that I’m sometimes a day behind in posting my entries. That day’s post was tagged private in wordpress, and didn’t appear in the RSS feed. I updated my socialR package to include a toggle to make uploaded images from public to private, and opened a private github repository. No, nothing tragic has happened and this doesn’t mean that everything I do will now be locked down until publication. Rather this comes as a result of being sent some rather exciting data, which I don’t have explicit permission to share.

This isn’t a new problem.  Open science has the opportunity to foster new collaborations, and scientists working together in an open context can leverage each others work more efficiently and effectively, while also having extending the potential both to reach and be used by the larger community. That’s not a statement of belief but of experience.  Nevertheless, the far more frequent experience is the challenge of  working with others for whom this is uncomfortable or unexpected.


The most common challenge comes simply from the need to always ask.  There is often content someone is happy to share but nevertheless I must first get their permission to post.  Seminar speakers, lab talks, or informal discussions or emails that people would not object to appearing in the notebook when asked.  This is the kind of problem Creative Commons licensing is trying to solve, making it easy to clearly give permission to share certain content.  Sometimes it is obvious (email on a public forum, etc), sometimes it’s easy enough to ask, but in general it’s all much easier to record interactions with others in notebook pages that aren’t open.  What’s the best practice here, and how can we make this simpler?


It gets harder when collaborators are uncomfortable having a contribution be public  – usually because it is against norms and subject to public scrutiny.  This is certainly understandable; I’m more comfortable giving a quick answer on a method to a colleague (and would be fine with them sharing it by word of mouth), but take much more care when posting that reply to a public forum (such as R-sig-phylo mailing list).  I’ve learned that taking risks and sometimes being wrong on these can be more useful than making private replies, just as I do in making my lab notebook public.  But I appreciate why it would make collaborators uncomfortable particularly when sharing thoughts publicly isn’t the norm and being judged is a risk.  In some ways this is the hardest of the three.


Then sometimes there are just hard barriers to sharing.  Journal requirements discouraging pre-publication disclosure, or post-publication journal copy-rights (it would be great to include published figures and text quotes in the notebook).  Some journals make this easy (see journals that consider a poster online as prepublication), some don’t.  Similarly I may have permission to use but not share data from collaborators.  Here I have hope that intelligent policies from publishers and funders about each of these issues (pre-publication, post-publication, and mandated data sharing) may reduce the frequency with which I face these barriers.

just Delayed?

Meanwhile, it’s a lot easier to keep all content in the notebook and mark private anything that runs up against one of these challenges.  With luck, it will just be a delay – after publications are out or the issues are farther in the past, sharing may seem less of a problem for collaborators.  I guess the other question might also be asked: is this really all-content?  It never has been, but I use the claim to indicate nothing is being intentionally withheld, just as with instant claim, nothing is being intentionally delayed.  Not that I have time or a use for writing everything in the posts, but as I’ve explained elsewhere this is why I consider the notebook an integration of wordpress and code, image, and article repositories (github, flickr, mendeley).

I’m curious to learn how others practicing forms of open science have faced and addressed these challenges in collaborations.