Science Fights Back With Open Access

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A major paradigm shift is taking the science world by storm. Open source is taking over.

For more than a century, scientists have depended on peer-reviewed journals to keep them up to date on the latest research. But as many of these journals have raised their subscription fees to bank-breaking levels, and locked life-saving research behind exorbitant paywalls, the gloves are finally coming off. Thousands of researchers are fighting back by boycotting publishers, submitting their papers to open-access journals like PLOS ONE and PNAS, and – most excitingly of all – making their datasets freely available online, for everyone.

As of September 2012, PLOS ONE appears to be the biggest scientific journal in the world.

But that’s just the beginning. In October 2012, an international team of neuroscientists known as the CONNECT Consortium released the first micro-structure atlas of the human brain: A massive open-access database of brain connectivity down to the micron scale. Quite a bit of their data is already available on their website, to be used with free open-source brain imaging programs like OpenWalnut and BrainVISA. Anyone with a computer and a willingness to tinker can play with the same data that professional neuroscientists are using.

Once upon a time, this guy was just a geek who liked to tinker.

The CONNECT project has already led to dozens of breakthroughs, including more precise techniques for modeling white matter wiring, advanced technologies for preserving live samples of neural tissue, and more than 80 new peer-reviewed journal papers based on the data the project assembled. And the work continues today Рthe team plans to continue gathering data, refining their techniques, and releasing new tools and models to scientists and the public.

The CONNECT Consortium aren’t the only ones with this dream. The Human Connectome Project, which ultimately aims to simulate the functioning of an entire human brain, makes intricate reconstructions of brain functionality available to anyone who qualifies for an account. If you’re in the mood for instant access, the Open Connectome Project will let you explore the brains of various animals online, right now. BrainMaps.org also has loads of models for you to play with.

If you’d rather gather your own data, grab a $299 neuroheadset and check out OpenVIBE, a free open-source program that helps you record your brainwaves, design your own experiments, and even create video games and art projects controlled by your brain activity. Though the EEG recordings you’ll get with a neuroheadset aren’t as deep or precise as the fMRI and DTI data used in many imaging studies, plenty of modern research is still EEG-based. It’s all about choosing the right tool for the right experiment.

What is a scientist, really? Anyone who’s willing to dig into the data, test expectations, and revise conclusions when they don’t agree with reality. If you agree that it’s more important to be true to the facts than to win an argument, you’re already a scientist at heart.

It’s like in the old quote attributed to the Buddha:

Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it… But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.

Every day, the world is metamorphosing. The landscape of science is shifting and quaking. Have you ever dreamed of making a scientific discovery? What’s stopping you?

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