Data Sharing Speeds Research

An article in the NYTimes (coming to me via Michael Geist) reports progress in Alzheimer’s research coming as a result of researchers adopting the principle of open data.

The key to the Alzheimer’s project was an agreement as ambitious as its goal: not just to raise money, not just to do research on a vast scale, but also to share all the data, making every single finding public immediately, available to anyone with a computer anywhere in the world.

No one would own the data. No one could submit patent applications, though private companies would ultimately profit from any drugs or imaging tests developed as a result of the effort.

“It was unbelievable,” said Dr. John Q. Trojanowski, an Alzheimer’s researcher at the University of Pennsylvania. “It’s not science the way most of us have practiced it in our careers.

The last admission is surprising to a scientific idealist and it shows how the economic motive has distorted the natural progress of science. One may argue that the economic motive has driven progress that would not otherwise have happend, but this is clear evidence that (up to now at least) it has not done so optimally. It is encouraging to see that a return to the scientific ideal of openness is possible within the constraints of the economic motive and I really admire the capacity demonstrated here for finding the win-win solution to the “prisoners dilemma”.

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