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What the tech industry can teach academia

By Sami Benchekroun

Without taking risks and challenging the status quo, the majority of the world’s biggest scientific breakthroughs would not have been possible. That’s why it’s all the more surprising that academia itself is often reluctant to embrace new ways of working and sharing results. Scientists work on their research in secrecy for months or years and then wait an average of 100 days from the moment they submit their paper until it ends up published in a journal. Early-stage findings are hidden, failures are rarely shared, and the online presence of scientific content is disjointed, meaning that valuable findings end up obscured from both researchers and the general public.

The tech industry, on the other hand, is known for moving quickly and working openly when building innovative products. Although startups share similarities with academia – like scientists, entrepreneurs research and brainstorm ideas, test, and iterate them – tech companies face the added pressure of needing to make decisions and implement results quickly, or risk going out of business. Building products and sometimes failing happens publicly and is an accepted part of the entrepreneurial career.

This, along with the fast-paced, transparent, and risk-friendly startup culture, is the main reason that technology has progressed so rapidly over the past decades. I believe adopting a more entrepreneurial mind-set and sharing research more openly could help scientists make progress, too. Moving away from the traditional, siloed environment of academia and encouraging a more transparent and digital way of working would not only allow individual researchers to get to results faster, but improve the state of science as a whole.

An Open-Source approach

 

Entrepreneurs present minimum viable products, get feedback, iterate, and improve constantly. Software engineers often subscribe to the Open Source movement, sharing APIs and code publicly and allowing other developers to build their own applications using this data. A big reason the world is so technologically advanced today is because many engineers and tech companies were willing to put down the foundations for others to build on. Although there’s no denying that tech companies also have trade secrets, entrepreneurs are generally more aware of the business benefits of having an open source approach. It certainly helps that tech giants such as Facebook, Microsoft and Google are leading the charge and making all the information about their IT infrastructure publicly available, to name just one example.

Imagine the same mind-set in academia. Rather than working in isolation and secrecy and waiting months or even years to publish their findings in a journal article, scientists should share each step of the research process openly – from raw datasets to the first conference poster. Recent mandates from publishing groups such as Nature and Science that require the underlying data and code from research studies be made available for all articles they publish is a step in the right direction, but there’s still a lot of room for improvement.

By sharing every step of the research process from the very beginning scientists could discover peers who are working on the same topic, get feedback along the way, and allow others to cite and build on their datasets or preliminary results. Opening up early-stage science would also mean that valuable scientific trends and analytics could be discovered far earlier in the research process than is currently possible.

An integrated set of software tools

 

The tech industry is the first to adopt new digital services designed to increase productivity, streamline communication, or improve workflow. Startups gravitate towards applications that are intuitive to use and beautifully designed. Academia, on the other hand, is slower to embrace workflow tools, especially those designed to increase research sharing and collaboration.

Articles, datasets, and research findings are not organized in a meaningful way online, so even the process of finding relevant research can be overly complicated and time consuming. Early-stage scientific content, such as the posters that are shared at academic conferences, is often restricted to the offline world and cannot be discovered by relevant researchers. In order to improve access to data and documents online, universities and institutions need to be more open to adopting software products that connect and order this research while providing an excellent user experience.

A culture of failing

 

Failures are inevitable. Nine out of ten startups end up failing and, although it’s difficult to judge exact numbers, it’s safe to say that a significant number of research studies do not yield positive results. Yet one major difference between the tech industry and academia is that entrepreneurs are more willing to communicate their failures publicly, pick themselves up, and try again. In Silicon Valley, having founded an unsuccessful startup does not automatically mean an entrepreneur has a negative mark against their name. Every failure can be learned from, and sharing this experience transparently can be immensely useful for other people who are working on a similar topic.

If scientists shared their failed results, for example, they could save their peers from making the same mistakes. The only way to truly solve the world’s problems is if scientists are willing to work together to make progress on their research.

This article originally appeared on GotScience Magazine.

Image credit Anika Huizinga on Unsplash

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