By Becca Bayham

In 2009, mathematician Timothy Gowers posed this question to the blogosphere: “Is massively collaborative mathematics possible?” He described an unsolved math problem and asked for help figuring it out. Over the next few hours and days, commenters began to pick at the problem together. They brought up incomplete ideas, which were expanded and incorporated into other peoples’ ideas, until Gowers posted 37 days later that the problem had (probably) been solved.

Which raises the question — Can open source principles be applied to scientific problems? Michael Nielsen explored this idea during a lecture last Tuesday, sponsored by the Duke University Libraries.

When a non-profit needed a technology that didn’t exist (an affordable solar-powered wireless router), they turned to InnoCentive, a website that allows organizations to post descriptions of scientific problems they’d like solved. Rewards range from a couple thousand dollars (for designing a better beverage container) to a cool million (for finding the biomarker for ALS).

The challenge was solved by a man who’d made a hobby of building his own low-cost radio networks and solar power systems. The moral of the story — if a problem requires an unusual combination of expertise, someone somewhere might have it. Or a collaboration of people might generate the “conversational critical mass” to make easy work of the problem.

Open source science can be difficult to achieve, however. Nielsen said that numerous wikis and online communities have tried to facilitate idea sharing, but failed for a lack of incentives.

“Imagine you’re a young scientist who wants to get a job at some point,” Nielsen said. “You know that from the point of view of some hiring committee, a long slew of brilliant contributions to a wiki doesn’t count as much as a single mediocre scientific paper that no one is going to read.”

Nielsen advocated creating incentives for scientists to share in new ways. For example, including blog posts in Google Scholar searches, or publishing data sets instead of just papers.

“The payoff is to develop new methods for the construction of knowledge … and to expand the range of scientific problems that we can attack,” Nielsen said.