Previous Contents Next
Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship
Spring 2012

Book Reviews

Reinventing Discovery: The New Era of Networked Science

Lia Vella
Reference Librarian
Arthur Lakes Library
Colorado School of Mines
Golden, Colorado

Copyright 2012, Lia Vella. Used with permission.

Nielsen, Michael. Reinventing Discovery: The New Era of Networked Science. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012.

GenBank. Galaxy Zoo. The Polymath Project. Perhaps you've never heard of these endeavors, but there's a good chance you've heard of these: Linux and Wikipedia.

All of the above are online collaborative projects showcased in Michael Nielsen's Reinventing Discovery, which argues that networked science will soon be upon us--and that the public should welcome and help to hasten its arrival. Nielsen begins by using the three projects listed above to illustrate the concept of collective intelligence: respectively, a publicly accessible online database of human genetic information; a similar set-up hosting galactic images from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey; and a blog that poses difficult math problems to the general public. The point? Breakthroughs can happen quickly and effectively when data are made available to a multiplicity of perspectives and problem-solving styles--especially if those involved are able to discuss their thought process as they work. Certainly, there are drawbacks and obstacles to collective intelligence--not the least of which is the current system of scientific communication as it relates to professional advancement. Nielsen tackles this in the second part of the book, in which he addresses the topic of networked science.

But first, another example: Don Swanson, a retired information scientist with no medical training, uses open access papers posted at the National Library of Medicine portal to discover a previously unrecognized connection between migraine headaches and magnesium deficiency. Similarly, data like those housed in GenBank or the Galaxy Zoo, which may be too vast for one scientist or team of scientists to mine and too complex to process using computer algorithms, can yield new insights when made available to people in different labs, different disciplines, and even citizen scientists without specialized certification. Nielsen, a quantum computing scientist, understands the proclivity toward secrecy in the work of scientists. He argues, nevertheless, that now is the time to change the culture of science: from one that elevates priority of publication to one that rewards sharing. The final chapter of Reinventing Science devotes itself to envisioning some scenarios in which this could happen, from compulsory sharing (via mandate by governmental and other funding agencies) to voluntary sharing via platforms such as arXiv, and closes by suggesting ways in which anyone, scientist or non-, can help to bring this about.

This book is suited to a wide audience: those interested in greater detail (the specifics of the initial Polymath Project problem, for example) can view the appendix, bibliographic essay, and references at the end of the book, but Nielsen has written the main text in an engaging narrative style. Suitable for communities served by academic, public, and perhaps secondary school libraries, Nielsen's work is enjoyable and compelling.

Previous Contents Next

W3C 4.0