Open Science means leaving the idea desert for the idea farm

Open innovation starts with open idea sharing

“Less than 10 percent of innovation during the Renaissance is networked; two centuries later, a majority of breakthrough ideas emerge in collaborative environments. Multiple developments precipitate this shift, starting with Gutenberg’s press, which begins to have a material impact on secular research a century and a half after the first Bible hits the stands, as scientific ideas are stored and shared in the form of books and pamphlets. Postal systems, so central to Enlightenment science, flower across Europe; population densities increase in the urban centers; coffeehouses and formal institutions like the Royal Society create new hubs for intellectual collaboration.
Many of those innovation hubs exist outside the marketplace. The great minds of the period — Newton, Franklin, Priestley, Hooke, Jefferson, Locke, Lavoisier, Linnaeas — had little hope of financial reward for their ideas, and did everything in their power to encourage their circulation” (Johnson, 2011, emphasis added).

Ideas in the academy are another victim of the logic of arbitrary scarcity. They are also collateral damage in the proximity to the start-up economy. The academy should be an idea hot-house, instead we have an idea desert. The cultural shift to open science will be final when ideas flow across the planet like pinot at a faculty party.

Common-sense on idea sharing

Like talk, ideas are cheap. How many ideas (let’s limit these to synthetic insights about your area of research) do you have in a week? A day? An hour? So many that you really don’t take time to even jot them down? There are the ideas that connect your team (and the data you’ve collected, or plan to collect with funding) to a new hypothesis; that’s your next move in the infinite game. But so many other notions crowd into your thoughts:

  • Ideas you have while listening to a seminar talk outside your field, where you are curious how something you know might be of use or interest;
  • Ideas on where your discipline is headed, and those large-scale issues that might drive funder and association agendas;
  • Ideas that pop up when you read that new journal article (any article that does not give you new ideas is a waste of your time);
  • Ideas about what your graduate students might want to pursue to start their own infinite game play.
  • Ideas you put into that NSF proposal you submitted last month.

Face it: your professional life is brimming with ideas; that’s pretty much the point. Ideas are the starting line for the infinite game (See also: Things about science). There are about ten million science researchers on the planet. Each of them wakes up to a new day filled with new ideas. Almost all of them keep most of their ideas in their head until they are forgotten, replaced with other ideas, similarly forgotten, and a couple recent, unspoken insights.

Right now, today, almost all the ideas you have that are relevant to your work you might share if this were easy enough to do. You have any number of potential solutions for a wide range of issues in your area of research; solutions you have no intention of pursuing, but would really like to have solved — today if possible. For you, these are non-rivalrous ideas. You don’t mind if someone else, or anyone else, takes them and runs. At the same time, your idea might be a catalyst for someone else’s research; just the idea that leads them to a breakthrough.

You already have no reason to not share most of your ideas

Among your ideas are those you might want to propose to operationalize, given funding. So you tuck these away. And while your proposal is being evaluated, you worry that someone in that process will grab them for their own proposal (after down-grading yours: such is the sad state of the academy today).

The RFI idea paradox

Every so often, a funding agency or a foundation asks for feedback: they want your ideas about priorities for future research. Where will the science be in, say, five years? Ideally they would get a vast range of information from the thousands of scientists on their mailing lists. But realistically, they only get granules of ideas that are linked tightly to the goals of the teams/labs that will be angling for funding. “What should we focus on?” they ask. “Me,” you answer, although your text is designed to not say that directly.

Idea-gathering by funders is perhaps the least effective way to assemble knowledge about science. When it opened up an idea-farming platform to gather ideas, one major private foundation recently discovered that almost every idea came with an implied request for funding. So they shut down the service. This is not the fault of the researchers. They have five-hundred words to say what is most important for their discipline. What is most important for their discipline, in their perspective, is more support for an arena of research in which the researcher has already invested. Research funding is firmly embedded into the logic of scarcity today. Open science will explore other funding models.

So many ideas will not be collected by a funder RFI no matter how many responses they get.

The three elephants in the room for science idea sharing

Let’s recap here:

  1. Almost all your important ideas are non-rivalrous for you, so you have no reason to not share them, given the opportunity; and,
  2. Funding agencies are the least efficient organizations when it comes to gathering important ideas: the academy needs more and different idea gathering capabilities.
You already can share almost all of your ideas. 
 Funder RFIs are limited in utility; better to build an independent idea farm. 
 Your own ideas are good; but they are just the short tail of what is happening elsewhere. Add other ideas to them to make your ideas great, and then share these.

These are the two current “elephants in the room” for academy idea sharing. Should an open platform for science idea sharing (along the lines of current idea farming platforms) become available and popular, a third elephant is born: the possibility for open innovation. One of the major changes for corporate R&D in the past twenty years is “open innovation” (Johnson, 2011). This has also become a clarion call for the academy (Europäische Kommission, 2016). On the web, Quora and Stack Overflow offer networked question and answer platform solutions supporting open innovation. For-profit idea farming platforms like IdeaScale offer idea networking for corporate open innovation, through a subscription.

Open innovation starts with the premise “innovation happens elsewhere”:

“Innovation happens everywhere, but there is simply more elsewhere than here. Silly as it sounds, this is the brutal truth: Regardless of how smart, creative, and innovative you believe your organization is, there are more smart, creative, and innovative people outside your organization than inside” (Goldman and Gabriel, 2005).

Idea sharing for open science at an early EarthCube charrette

Ideas happen elsewhere too. The academy has a lot of elsewheres not often heard from. These “long-tail” communities and institutions are the academic homes to the great majority of scientists on the planet; they just happen to not be on the campus of one of the “better known” universities. The even longer tail includes scientists working outside of the academy, and citizen scientists anywhere. They all have ideas.

Put a lot of ideas into a shared, networked (databased, searchable, with discovery tools) environment, and innovation will blossom. This environment will become a place where, as Matt Ridley says, “ideas go to have sex.”

Connect even a million scientists (a small percentage of the total number) across the planet through their most recent ideas, and you should find a select few of them who happen to be considering precisely the same problematic currently puzzling you. Then you can reach out and build collaboratives to explore these together. Thinking of writing a proposal? Mine the combined idea farm of the planet to make your proposal ideas better; and then share these new ideas online (you can embargo them if you are worried). Your graduate students will be looking to see where their ideas are shared elsewhere, and how they can push their own infinite game play into new ground. You can mine the platform to sharpen your paper or your poster. Big data miners can also analyze and model these ideas to create a new form of synthetic learning about how science is done. The new elephant in the room is the potential capacity for communication of ideas, learning opportunities, and collaboration on the internet.

An open platform for your ideas to procreate: one good idea deserves a billion others

What if every day, say at the end of the work day, or after a beer, each scientist on the planet hopped online and added one idea to the global idea-farm platform (with some tags to help discovery)? What if ten-percent of them decided to add lots of ideas every month (the power-law curve suggests this is inevitable)? After a single year, there would be more than three billion ideas on the platform. Lots of overlap and similarities, but a whole lot of variety and difference too; coming from the minds of people who woke up in a hundred different nations. Each idea is time-stamped, with a permanent ID, and linked to its author. Every entry takes a minute or two to accomplish. A phone app lets you speak your idea directly into the mix.

Want to add a crazy good idea, or worried an idea might seem naive? Use your personal alias. Want to add a comment or a question to someone else’s idea? Go ahead. Feeling paranoid? Lock your proposal insight into an embargoed, timestamped vault on the platform. Open this later to show off. Then please try to be less paranoid, and more generous in the future.

Demand sharing means giving what is most valuable to you to the academy. This is a value and a norm for open science. Open science initiatives are building open platforms for a variety of internet services. The platform for open idea farming may not be here now, but can be built with a bit of funding and the right home.

Become an ImagiNative

There is a whole lot of “elsewhere” out there in the global Republic of Science (Polanyi, 1962). You need to be in touch will all these elsewhere ideas and with the people thinking them who also share your disciplinary/theoretical neighborhood. As Clay Shirky noted, “We also have to account for opportunity, ways of actually taking advantage of our ability to participate in concert where we previously consumed alone” (2010). You need to become an ImagiNative; open to new modes of collective knowing. And your lab, your school, your university needs to support open innovation and give up on patents (but that’s another blog). It’s all a part of playing the infinite game.

What if one of your ideas (you had this in the shower yesterday, and spoke it into your phone app over coffee) were picked up by a lab in another county, on another continent, and used to create a new theory that rocked your discipline; and in the paper that announced this theory, your idea was cited as a key element? How rewarding would that be? How many times might this happen across the planet in an open-innovation environment? And what if you searched the platform and found an idea from an early-career scientist in Sri Lanka that gave you a new insight into your current work, so you cited them in your next paper. How great for them. Soon, you might find the courage to give away insights you’ve been holding on to for years, and offering new ideas in response to the ideas of others. Congratulations, you a now an ImagiNative; a passionate knowledge explorer in the infinite game of science.


Europäische Kommission, ed. Open Innovation, Open Science, Open to the World: A Vision for Europe. Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union, 2016.

Goldman, Ron, and Richard P. Gabriel. Innovation Happens Elsewhere: Open Source as Business Strategy. Morgan Kaufmann, 2005.

Johnson, S. Where Good Ideas Come from: The Seven Patterns of Innovation. Penguin UK, 2011.

Polanyi, M. “The Republic of Science: Its Political and Economic Theory.” Minerva 1 (1962): 54–73.

Shirky, C. Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age. Penguin UK, 2010.