Opening up research proposals
Many ideas are lost in the current closed system, and so are opportunities to collaborate and improve those few that are actually being worked on. We propose to elaborate mechanisms that would allow a transition from the current secretive model to one in which sharing research ideas is the default and seen as an invitation for collaboration, for accelerating and improving research rather than as a breach of private property.
Journal of Research Proposals
Back in 1959, psychologist Myron Brender wrote
“I propose the creation [..] of a newsletter or journal to be devoted exclusively to the publication of unexecuted research proposals.”
Since then, the ways of publishing newsletters or journals have evolved considerably, but there still is no outlet for such unexecuted research. We want to build that. In fact, the OI Engine behind this very News Challenge could be a good starting point (if it were open), with some tweaks like support for references and perhaps some form of markup to facilitate discovery.
The main challenge of implementing this idea, however, is not technical but cultural: researchers currently have no incentive to share research proposals, and research funders have no habit of making their funding decisions public, nor who has applied for what.
A potential solution to this has been offered by Sydney Brenner in 2003:
“I propose that everybody who gives money for research should take 1% of it and put it into a fund which I call the casino fund, and write it off.”
He is a Nobel laureate and has made this suggestion multiple times over the last decade, with no action taken to actually build such a fund. The chances to engage research funders that way are thus rather slim, but some of them are likely to be interested in improving the efficiency of their funding mechanisms and may be willing to contribute to a fund dedicated to research about ways to improve research funding. We think that openness can contribute significantly to such improvements. For instance, some of the casino funding could be crowdsourced by allowing researchers to spend a small portion of their grant on co-funding open research proposals evaluated as “most interesting but unfundable”, or the public could be invited to contribute through crowdfunding platforms.
It is also worth considering that the overall environment for research communication has evolved since 2003, with researchers and the public much more exposed to sharing (including crowdfunding) and with open access to research results and data and even open science more generally being on high-level political agendas (see Neelie Kroes video embedded above).
The most comprehensive analysis to date of the current research funding system, a 2007 Cochrane review, stated: “Experimental studies assessing the effects of grant giving peer review on importance, relevance, usefulness, soundness of methods, soundness of ethics, completeness and accuracy of funded research are urgently needed. Practices aimed to control and evaluate the potentially negative effects of peer review should be implemented meanwhile.”
The present proposal of providing a platform for sharing research ideas is meant to help bridge this gap.
The current reward systems around scholarly research are geared heavily against sharing research results (especially early on), so we plan to experiment with incentives.
Specifically, science prizes have a long tradition of stimulating innovation and scientific discovery, and their potential to do so is even greater in the Web age. Yet this web-enhanced potential has not been fully explored in research contexts, although initiatives like this News Challenge provide instructive examples to learn from. In addition to philanthropists and foundations, thematic organizations like patient advocacy groups as well as Corporate Social Responsibility initiatives could all join traditional research funders in contributing to the pursuit of new ideas. If this happens openly, many of the issues around traditional sponsorship would be considerably alleviated.
Currently, a common scenario is that a proposal was evaluated as excellent but rejected nonetheless, due to limited funds. What would be lost if these proposals and their assessments were made public and others could chip in to move the project forward? That could include the Corporate Social Responsibility initiatives and patient advocacy groups above, or even researchers who actually did get funded, who could opt-in to committing, say, up to 1% of their research grant to a fund which would be distributed – based on some dedicated metrics – to one of those proposals deemed promising but unfundable by traditional means.
For researchers seeking support for implementing their ideas, the act of publishing research proposals would function as a call for funders and collaborators, thereby inverting and complementing classical “calls for proposals” by traditional research funders.
Public research proposals would also open the door for science journalism to go new ways: instead of headlines of the “researchers found” kind once a research project has long finished, they could cover research projects from early on and highlight the process behind it.
A similar argument could be made for educating early-stage researchers about grant writing and planning research. Years could be won if prospective students would arrive having read the most recent proposals from a lab and in its field, rather than only the most recent publications.
Of course, there is the fear of getting scooped, i.e. that someone else might steal an idea worth implementing, and if they have the resources, they may get there first and reap off all the benefits.
Many have experienced this in the current system, but effective scooping is actually relatively simple now and much harder if your ideas are out there in the open: if everyone knows you were the first to propose (and actually pursue) that idea, anyone who tries to sell it as their own will risk loosing reputation, so they may actually prefer to work with rather than against you. More on that in the Harvard video embedded above.
Assuming (as we do) that they exist, there is no easy answer to that, and identifying conditions under which researchers would be inclined towards openly collaborative approaches is a key research component of our proposal. To this end, we plan to survey researchers concerning barriers to, incentives needed for, and potential usefulness of open research proposals. Besides gathering data, the survey would double as an outreach tool to raise awareness of open approaches and to spur creative thinking around them, which could be fed back to the project.
Past experience with open collaborative initiatives like the Polymath projects or the annotation of the EHEC genome suggests that problems attract open collaboration if they are too complex to be solved by individuals or existing research groups but nonetheless likely tractable if the right set of skills, knowledge and tools comes together.
With that in mind, it is worth considering that current research funding is systemically biased against proposals that do not fit into established disciplinary boundaries. In that context, computer scientist Ehud Shapiro recently wrote:
“Genuine interdisciplinary research is nothing like a competitive race. It is much more like a solitary exploratory hike through an uncharted landscape. […] There are no peers to compete with”. But there may be collaborators if they ask nicely.
Now consider how the initiator of the first Polymath project, Fields medalist Tim Gowers, described the open and collaborative nature of the project: “this process is to normal research as driving is to pushing a car.”
We expect that at least some of Shapiro’s solitary hikers would like to borrow Gowers’ car to drive through the uncharted territory in front of them. In order to recruit open collaborators, they will have to provide them with information as to why the ride would be worth it, how to identify and reach targets and so on, which is precisely the classical function of research proposals.
While our aim is to open up research proposals of any kind, we will pay special attention to ensuring that our proposed system fits the needs of research proposals that bridge across disciplines.
We are conscious that other minorities exist within the research community, and we will strive to cater to their needs as well. In doing so, we will build on related experiences with open procedures in other research contexts. For instance, some scholarly journals engaged in public peer review address these issues by allowing reviewers to choose whether they want to remain anonymous.
Apart from facilitating the publication and dissemination of new research proposals, we will work on incorporating proposals from the past – both funded and unfunded ones – into our system, with an eye on providing programmatic access to the data, which may be of interest to science historians, research administrators or developers building discovery tools.
Given that funding bodies and institutions are now starting to make public detailed accounts of the money they spent on author-paid access to research publications, it seems not too unreasonable to expect that some of them may be willing to share more of their records soon, perhaps with some embargo periods that can be phased out over time.