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I went to an open science hackathon and all I got was a t-shirt… and hope for the future of science

Last week I participated in the 2-day eLife Innovation Sprint. I knew the event was aimed at bringing together ‘computer people’ (programmers, designers, developers) and ‘science people’ (researchers, communicators, publishers) in order to create novel tools for open science. What I didn’t know was that this event was actually a hackathon. I felt a little like a school kid who hadn’t done her homework and was just waiting to be found out. To my relief, however, when introductions started, I saw that this truly was a varied group of people, some with extensive coding knowledge, some with years of experience in publishing, and students like myself – all motivated and passionate about the issue of open science and ready to get to work.

These 60 people are the main reason this event was so great. Once the projects were pitched, all the participants self-organized in less than an hour – within most groups there was an incredible diversity of expertise, allowing for productive brainstorming sessions and quick project development. If one particular group was in need of, say, a user experience designer for their project, they were less than 10 feet away from a person willing to help. Every person I met was super nice, helpful, and motivated. We were all there for the same reason, after all, and this was clearly reflected in the collaborative atmosphere of the event. The ideas being exchanged were grand, hopeful, and ambitious – but importantly, still realistic. The space fuelled our productivity: it was beautiful, there was constant coffee, and the staff were very friendly (shout out to the person who helped us get an extension cord down from the ceiling). Finally, the organizers of the event (the eLife Innovation team – and specifically Naomi Penfold) did an outstanding job, making everything from finding your way to the venue to collaborating with other participants really easy, accessible, and fun (not to mention the awesome freebies – yes, that includes the aforementioned t-shirt). Given these factors, it’s no surprise that by the end of the two days, every group had something incredible to show – including detailed road maps, newly designed logos, and even actual working prototypes of their ideas.

I was on Team Octopus headed by Alex Freeman, Executive Director of the Winton Centre for Risk and Evidence Communication in Cambridge. She proposed a big idea on reforming scientific publishing from scratch – a platform for researchers to read, write, and review science all in one place. I was drawn to this because it ticked all the boxes: it could improve reproducibility, promote collaboration, speed up discovery, and redefine the incentives driving research. Our stimulating brainstorming sessions were incredible – everyone had great ideas, and we were all aware of the limitations of our project. Despite the size and ambition of this project, we focused on the task at hand and managed to create a website about our project, designs for the platform and a working prototype. We weren’t the only ones with a working prototype either – all of the ideas worked on at the Sprint made huge progress in our short time together – I highly encourage you to check them all out here.

It was my first time at an event like this, but I heard from several (more experienced) people that this was the best/most productive/most fun hackathon they’d ever been to. While I have nothing to compare it to, this amazing experience has been one of the highlights of my PhD – maybe a close second to what I imagine handing my thesis in will feel like. I learned so much in those two short days (including some of that ‘computer stuff’ I had no idea about), had inspiring conversations and exchanged ideas with like-minded people, and allowed myself to imagine a world in which science could be open, transparent, and reproducible. Before attending the Sprint, I was losing faith in this daydream – disrupting the status quo of grant schemes, academic promotion systems, and scientific publishing seemed an almost insurmountable task. After meeting so many open science advocates and experiencing first-hand the sense of urgency and excitement surrounding these initiatives, my faith has officially been restored. As I mentioned in a previous post, ECRs are the future of science and if we all resign to the idea that things will never change, this will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. This is more than just a technological or practical problem – it’s an issue deeply rooted in our academic culture. If we all do our part to contribute to changing the way things are – because let’s be honest, it’s not working – that distant daydream could become a reality sooner than we think.

 

Featured image courtesy of eLife Innovation/Stuart King.

References

eLife Innovation Spring 2018, https://elifesciences.org/events/c40798c3/elife-innovation-sprint-2018.

Cambridge Junction, https://www.junction.co.uk/

Octopus, http://octopus-hypothesis.netlify.com/

Octopus, Fixing Science, http://octopus-hypothesis.netlify.com/blog/2018/05/13/2018-05-13_fixingscience/

Dealing with the reproducibility crisis: what can ECRs do about it? Ally Dillenburg, PLOS ECR Community, https://blogs.staging.plos.org/thestudentblog/2018/04/27/dealing-with-the-reproducibility-crisis-what-can-ecrs-do-about-it/

Discussion
  1. I entirely agree with Ally – it was great to work with her and everyone else at the hackathon. I was also new to the whole concept of a hackathon, and was amazed at how open and welcoming everyone was, even to us non-coders. It was also fantastic to feel the experience and knowledge and enthusiasm behind ideas to reform scientific publishing (an area I am also new to, but already consider to be the most important thing I can now work on).

    All credit to Naomi and the team at eLife who organised it, all the other attendees (especially Team Octopus of course!) and the sponsors who helped us make the progress that we did.

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