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27 February 2013, 10:38

Will open science be web-based?

by Glyn Moody

Glyn Moody revisits the subject of open science, sees how others are now making the connection between open source and science, and contemplates the likelihood of a web-based future.

Just over a year ago, I wrote a column here on The H Open about the interesting points of contact between open source and science, especially as computers become an increasingly important tool for most scientists. Now it seems that other people are also beginning to see a connection. Here, for example, is a recent recruitment ad for the post of Director, Webmaking Science Lab, which comes from a rather surprising quarter:

Mozilla is seeking a dynamic individual to drive the vision and product strategy for its Webmaking Science Lab. This is a key strategic role reporting to the Executive Director. This individual will lead the charge in reaching out to the scientific community, helping to establish a vibrant community of scientists, developers, designers, and other individuals working to advance the practice of science on the web. A passion for open science, a keen understanding of the web as both a technology stack and culture, experience with existing web-based science toolsets, and enthusiasm for community-driven technology development are the initial key qualifications. As a senior member of the Mozilla organization, the successful candidate will be responsible for gathering partners, inspiring a team, building a community, shaping a vision, and leading the development and delivery of new products for conducting science both on and like the web.

As the ad notes, this is "a key strategic role reporting to the Executive Director" of the Mozilla Foundation, Mark Surman, and talks of "inspiring a team", which suggests that this won't just be somebody stuck in a room somewhere. It will be interesting to see how exactly this vision unfolds, and how serious Mozilla really is about helping to advance "the practice of science on the web" – in particular, what resources it puts behind the move. Still, it's certainly significant that it is even trying, and suggests that it sees the commonalities I explored back in 2011.

One interesting difference between what I wrote about then and Mozilla's approach is the emphasis on web-based science and toolsets, rather than standalone applications. That's not so surprising, since the web is, after all, Mozilla's heartland. It's not such a limitation either, since most things are moving onto the web in one way or another, not least thanks to cloud computing.

Indeed, it's a shrewd way of addressing one of the key problems with applying open source to science. At the moment, what few open source science applications there are tend to be domain specific. That makes it hard to take advantage of one of the key strengths of free software: re-usability. That issue is tackled in another recent column looking at science and open source. It comes from Ross Gardler, currently "Senior Technical Evangelist at Microsoft", but better known for his work with the Apache Software Foundation. As he notes:

The trick to successful open source collaboration is not to deliver complete systems but to look at components that can be usefully reused in different situations. Consider, for example, software for working with DNA samples in some way. Such software is highly specialised. It is tempting to look for other people who are working in the same area and seek to share code with them. Whilst this can be very fruitful it does limit the potential community to those working in a niche area (some of whom may be "competing" researchers). However, consider that processing DNA samples is, in many ways the same as processing other data. We have storage demands, scalability issues, visualisation needs and so on. If we look at each of these items separately we can see much greater potential for collaboration.

The majority of successful open source projects are components rather than complete systems. Even products that are complete in their own right, such as the Mozilla Firefox web browser or the Apache OpenOffice suite of productivity tools, provide extensive mechanisms for customising the base install through individual components (plugins) to match specific needs.

Next: A web-savvy future

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