NYAS: What do you see as the current problem with access to science knowledge?
Boyle: Science knowledge generation has gone digital, but our method of knowledge processing is still analog. Most scientific literature is behind pay walls. You may be able to find it with Google, but you probably can't read it. That's Science 1.0: You don't have access unless you're sitting in a great research university where it's free, and you certainly can't send a robot to crawl the literature to create a mini index of all the articles, and cross index them and see whether, for example, a particular gene known by multiple names is referenced by them.
NYAS: Is the prestige attached to publishing with closed journals part of the problem?
Boyle: Right now, if your article gets into Nature or Science it's a big help in getting tenure and grants and retaining grad students. That's important—we should encourage people to publish. But perhaps we could refine the incentives so that you get more of a bump for publishing openly. I would like to see people's resumes say when their database has been downloaded more than 1,000 times. You want the prestige economy to reward the pro-social behavior, not the anti-social behavior.
NYAS: So, how can incentives be changed?
Boyle: When you've got centrally funded science, it should be a pretty easy cascade to start. The funders get much more bang for their buck if they do this. You're actually saving the public money and increasing the yield of every research dollar.
Once the idea can be explained to people, it makes an enormous amount of sense. I tell scientists, "There are a billion people connected to the, the Web. At least one of them has a smarter idea about what to do with your data than you do."
Their first take, though, is "Oh, great. You're going to force me to annotate my data, and put everything out there. You're going to troll it and publish ahead of me. I'm going to get no credit, I'm not going to get tenure, and I'm going to end up living under a Dumpster. And you're going to win the Nobel Prize." That mindset is the big obstacle.
We need funders to say that a condition for the funding is data deposit in an open, accessible format. That's beginning to happen—the public-access mandate from NIH is beginning to make the literature openly available. But we're just at the beginning.
NYAS: Beyond social/cultural issues, what else needs to change?
Boyle: Nobody ever wants to fund infrastructure because it's boring, but enabling Science 2.0 is the Eisenhower freeway system of the mind. And then we need to get past the legal restrictions so that we can have technologies that troll for data, make sense of it, and import it mechanically.
NYAS: How is Science Commons addressing those issues?
Boyle: We're sort of the public interest lawyer to the sciences. Say you want to use a database which was generated in Europe. We come up with a data protocol, a legal tool, which says "this gets your data free to the greatest extent possible in every jurisdiction in the world that we have lawyers in" (and we have lawyers pretty much everywhere, because a lot of really smart lawyers have volunteered to produce this high-quality tool).
We're also attempting to show people what it might look like if you could wire together all this open stuff. We have a project called the Neuro Commons which is putting all the publicly available neurological literature and open databases together in a vast, open network that anyone can download, use, or build upon.
We've had high-throughput arrays, robotization, in silico studies, genetic sequencing, and the personal genome. All of these were supposed to catapult us off into a scientific revolution, but didn't. It reminds me of what people were saying about the personal computer in 1985: "This thing's just a paperweight. What does it do for me?" The answer was, "Nothing until it's wired together with all of the other ones." Then suddenly you can't imagine being without it.