Helping research thrive on the web: Year in review

When we first launched the Science Lab 18 months ago, we had a napkin sketch of a framing, an educational program to partner with, and a shared belief that “open science” was not yet a reality.

That initial model pulled from the Mozilla Manifesto core values and principles and applied them to scientific research, in particular openness , interoperability, and the idea that you don’t need a CS degree to use the web. We put that plan in front of over 3,000 community members in the first few months to kick the tires, talking about how to further science on the web. We asked where we, Mozilla, an organization with a history steeped in open but in a different context, could help.

My colleague Dan Sinker gave me some wise advice when we first launched the program, encouraging me to get my hands dirty and not prescribe action for the community, but instead work with them to understand their needs, and ask how we can help. Mozilla is a new entity in this space, despite my previous work in the community, and we first had to listen.

Looking back, it was invaluable advice, and set the course for how we strive to engage with the broader open research community: from technologists and developers to university librarians, researchers, publishers, and citizen scientists. In the past ten years alone we’ve seen tremendous gains when it comes to awareness and practice around Open Access to content and more recently data, more choice when it comes to tools and technologies than we’ve ever had before – but for some reason, we’re still hitting friction. Knowing what exists in open science and how to apply it is still a challenge for most of us. There’s still excessive duplication (and not enough replication), and reward systems that incentivize the old way of doing research. And an impressive amount of people who want to help, but who aren’t sure how, or aren’t linked with others who could help us collectively move research forward.

Over the course of the last year, we tested that model through a series of pilots, building support for Software Carpentry as the Science Lab’s educational arm, and continually seeking feedback from the community on how we could help.

In the past year, we have trained thousands of practitioners, released working prototypes around code citation and content discovery, and launched a series of events and online platforms to foster community engagement. In addition to direct service to the community, the first year of our work enabled us to learn more about what our community needs, how we can best address those gaps, and how we can develop scalable learning pathways for researchers.

What we’ve learned

We learned there’s a tremendous appetite and need for skills training in the sciences, but that “open research practice” is something we need to, as a community, do a better job of unpacking and making accessible.

Gaps still remain between moving from recognition to practice, from knowing there’s a need for training (for example) to meaningfully transforming practice over the long term. Part of that stems from disciplinary needs and daily pressures. Part is a matter of operating within an academic culture where despite research becoming more computational and data-driven, the “programming” is still looked upon as the work of a developer, and not seen as part of the skill set of the scientist. Part includes logistical tweaks such as different forms of follow-up, as well as community supports, incentives and clear pathways to build expertise.

Through our work with Software Carpentry, we have learned firsthand the need for skills training and mentorship in research if we are going to shift practice. We have also seen the challenges in scaling and making sustainable volunteer efforts, as well as assessing their long-term impact.

Transition and growth

This past year, Software Carpentry graduated from being our main educational arm to a Foundation all on its own, supported by a network of institutional partners (Mozilla, Software Sustainability Institute, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory) and individuals. We’re tremendously thankful for the time we spent incubating Software Carpentry and greatly looking forward to it growing into a sustainable foundation and increasing its global impact.

We also grew our core team to four, welcoming Abby Cabunoc as our technical lead; Bill Mills as our community manager; and Arliss Collins, formerly a part-time Software Carpentry coordinator, now our first training coordinator.
They’ve each been critical in building out the program these last few months, and I couldn’t be more excited for 2015. They’ve been blogging this week about our work this past year and what’s ahead, with Bill writing on community engagement plans; Abby posting thoughts on our technical strategy; and finally Arliss on our work in teaching and learning open research practice.

Looking towards 2015

So, what’s in store for the coming year?

We’ll be ramping up effort on all of the strategy detailed in my colleagues’ posts linked above, especially our training efforts around data and computational thinking, mentorship to support the community of learners and practitioners and technical prototyping like our new Badges effort as well as continuing our collaboration with GitHub, Zenodo and figshare. We’ll also be testing out methods to incentivise researchers to become open science trainers and leaders within their communities, with some big news to share in January. Do stay tuned for more – we can’t wait to share with you what’s in store.

Special thanks

Of course the Science Lab’s work far exceeds that of a four-person team. This work is made possible by the generous support from Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, as well as the participation of the hundreds of community members, volunteer instructors, code contributors and learners who joined us this past year. Many thanks to all who’ve joined us this past year in helping to further science on the web, and here’s to continuing that in 2015.