My mother died in March 2010 after a 15-year battle with Alzheimer’s, so I pay particular attention to news about this dreadful disease. A recent New York Times article caught my eye: “Sharing of Data Leads to Progress on Alzheimer's.”
How did sharing data lead to progress on Alzheimer’s? A collaborative effort, the Alzheimer’s Disease Neuroimaging Initiative, was formed to find the biological markers that show the progression of Alzheimer’s disease in the human brain. The key was to share all the data, making every finding public immediately – “available to anyone with a computer anywhere in the world.”
Alzheimer’s research is an enormous task with limited returns. Dr. Michael W. Weiner of the San Francisco Department of Veterans Affairs said “Different people using different methods on different subjects in different places were getting different results, which is not surprising. What was needed was to get everyone together and to get a common data set.” Numerous entities were willing to shoulder the burden and work together on the project, sharing their information for the good of all.
According to Dr. John Q. Trojanowski, an Alzheimer’s researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, “It’s not science the way most of us have practiced it in our careers. But we all realized that we would never get biomarkers unless all of us parked our egos and intellectual-property noses outside the door and agreed that all of our data would be public immediately.” The National institutes of Health served as an “honest broker, between the pharmaceutical industry and academia.”
The notion that science progresses only if knowledge is shared is the reason that OSTI wascreated in 1947. Documents sent to and from President Franklin Roosevelt near the end of World War II included this rationale for sharing knowledge, and the concept was incorporated into the Atomic Energy Act of 1946 which led to the creation of OSTI.
In recent years the advent of the web has opened up the possibility of sharing knowledge with orders of magnitude more people and making it heretofore unimaginably easier to find and use. The possibility of sharing knowledge faster and better led us to formulate the OSTI Corollary in the mid-2000s: If the sharing of knowledge is accelerated, discovery is accelerated. In mathematical parlance, the Corollary might be considered the time derivative of the concept.
The Corollary seemed rather intuitive to us, but in an attempt to add authority to it, in 2005 we commissioned a rigorous literature search to learn who else in the history of science or knowledge management had stated it. We anticipated that we would be making speeches that said, “According to Professor Muckety-Muck, discovery can be accelerated by accelerating the spread of knowledge.” We were thus surprised when that literature search was unable to find any indication that the thought had been previously pursued or recorded.
Unwilling to accept this negative result and implicitly questioning the thoroughness of the literature search, we commissioned a second literature search entirely independent of the first and, if possible, even more rigorous. We were again surprised when that literature search, too, was unable to find any indication that the thought had been previously recorded.
We are left to conclude that the Corollary is OSTI’s original concept. It has profound implications for all of us in the information business. For it means that if we can only do our jobs much better and faster, then...Read more...