From One Man Band to Orchestra

29 February 2016

This is the story of how I put my idea for an openscienceprize entry on the internet, nearly gave up on it, and then met a ton of incredible people. It all ended with: everpub - reusable research, 21st century style.

Everpub is a prototype to make reproducibility a first-class citizen in research by enabling the publication of dynamic and interactive scientific narratives that can be verified, altered, reused, and cited from a web browser.

Join the lively discussion on how to pull that off.

Say what?

I want to build a web app that allows you to browse scientific publications, edit them, re-run them, and fork them. Imagine my interactive blog posts meets everware/mybinder meets the arXiv.

A UI Mock Up for Everpub

The Beginning

It all started fairly harmlessly at the end of January. I put the core of the idea on GitHub. One day later Daniel Mietchen posted an issue about using a different license. I got in touch with a few people, exchanged ideas, discussed the way forward. Not much happened, there was not much traction. People were not joining me.

There is a lot of discussion and advice on the subject of putting your grant proposals, science ideas, etc out on the internet for everyone to read before you even submitted them or did any work on them. Mostly people worry about it being stolen.

Far from everyone stealing my idea, the main action taken by others was to ignore it. Damn it!

On hold

About ten days prior to the deadline I decided to put writing the proposal on hold in favour of working on it. You see, in order to be eligible for the prize you need a team with participants from the US and outside the US. I was lacking a US collaborator.

I modified the README accordingly: This thing is on hold until I find a US collaborator.

The breakthrough

Suddenly I had a PR from Titus wanting to join. I am still not quite sure how I pulled that off. Maybe it was obnoxiously posting comments on his blog about next gen scientific publishing, or letting him know I wanted to take part in this openscienceprize speed dating. Either way, we now were a team!

The end

In the end a huge number of people contributed to the final proposal. I think once one outsider joins (who happens to be super well connected) it becomes much easier for others to sign on. The most surprising thing for me was that people I had contacted earlier and who were only mildly interested suddenly did join and contributed!

There was a lot of editing, discussing, to-and-fro'ing, and tons of ideation, as well as some grant-y language. We could not settle all discussions in time for the deadline, which shows you how difficult it is to get this right.

The proposal we got in the end was much better than what we started with. Several organisations and publishers showed their interest. The proposal itself has received nearly 500 unique visits, and has more stars then any other GitHub repo I have ever created. This is not meant as a #humblebrag, I am still amazed that this happened. It shows you the power of the internet.

For what that is worth, I will book this as a success.

Openness first

This proposal would not have happened if I had not put it out there for all the research parasites to steal.

Based on my N=1 dataset, I would recommend that everyone do this. You can get a lot done and meet interesting people this way. Ideas are so cheap these days, that it is hardly worth protecting them. The expensive part is executing on these ideas. You can do that in the open as well because it is so costly. It seems like the worst that could happen is you gain some superstar collaborators.

In a similar vein academics spend a lot of time discussing author lists. What is the minimum contribution to be listed? Should we allow anyone to join? How do we order them? My feeling is this time could be better spent getting stuff done. History will not remember those who wrote a vague-but-exciting proposal but those who execute on it and remove the vague part to make it exciting.

To quote an anonymous friend in when asked if they wanted to add their name to the proposal: "Nah, thanks. I like the idea but I won't pretend I'll give you serious help. And I can still join later since it is open source :)"

Conclusion

Everpub aims to disrupt scientific publishing, in a good way. Let's see how much of that big talk we can actually deliver. Everpub will be a open-source project so expect me to visit you to persuade you to join for some actual work.

In the mean time, enjoy this science picture:

Science