Sharing Results is the Engine of Scientific Progress
OSTI's mission is to help scientists share their results, but what role do results play in science? Here we present a simple model of one of the most basic uses of results, namely as the engine of scientific progress. Research results are more than just accumulated knowledge. Research results make possible new questions, which in turn lead to even more knowledge. The resulting pattern of exponential growth in knowledge is called an issue tree. It shows how individual results can have a value far beyond themselves, because they are shared and lead to research by others.
The reader is referred to the Sharing Results Issue Tree. This is an abstract example of a fundamental pattern that occurs throughout science. It begins with Result 1, which is an important finding by a researcher named Smith. Given this result there are three important new questions that can be formulated -- Questions A, B & C. It is important to realize that these questions could not have been asked until Result 1 occurred. Result 1 does much more than simply add to our knowledge, it raises important new questions.
Each of the three questions now becomes the object of new research. It is important to realize that in many cases this new research will be undertaken by researchers other than the one who got Result 1. This could not happen unless these new researchers know about Result 1, which requires sharing of results in some way or other. Thus sharing is essential for scientific progress.
The new questions that grow out of Result 1 yield Results 2 through 9. These new results are obtained mostly by researchers other than Smith, such as Brown, Gupta, Kim, etc. This is a large increase in knowledge, which is only made possible by the sharing of Result 1. Thus Result 1's value extends far beyond its contribution to knowledge. This is the essential point:
The value of a scientific result often lies, not in the knowledge it adds, but in the knowledge it leads to when it is shared.
Moreover, the process does not stop there. Note how one of these new results, Result 5, generates four new questions. One of these in turn yields two new results, Results 10 & 11. These too are a product of the sharing of Result 1. In the real world this sharing process often leads to whole new subfields and specialties. A single result, such as the discovery of the electron, can yield millions of important results by other researchers.
This pattern of progressive, spreading questions and answers is called an issue tree. The issue tree diagram provides a visual map of the progress of a little bit of science. But the underlying pattern is there in science itself, whether we map it or not. It is one of the fundamental patterns of scientific thinking.
Progress is not just the cumulative product of individual efforts, it requires sharing for its very being. We take this sharing for granted but it is by no means assured, and it is far from being efficient. The Internet promises to greatly improve the process of sharing scientific results, which should speed up progress. But this promise is still largely unmet. This is the challenge that OSTI is working on, how to speed up scientific progress by making sharing efficient.