07 Feb 2007  Working Papers

The Value of Openness in Scientific Problem Solving

Executive Summary — Scientists are generally rewarded for discoveries they make as individuals or in small teams. While the sharing of information in science is an ideal, it is seldom practiced. In this research, Lakhani et al. used an approach common to open source software communities—which rely intensely on collaboration—and opened up a set of 166 scientific problems from the research laboratories of twenty-six firms to over 80,000 independent scientists. The outside scientists were able to solve one-third of the problems that the research laboratories were unable to solve internally. Key concepts include:

  • Opening up problem information to a large group of outsiders can yield innovative technical solutions, increase the probability of success in science programs, and ultimately boost research productivity.
  • Open source software communities provide a model for improving the process of solving scientific problems.
  • Outsiders can see problems with fresh eyes; in this study, problems were solved by independent scientists with expertise at the boundary of or even outside their field.
  • Achieving true openness and collaboration will require change in the mindsets of both scientists and lab leadership.

 

Author Abstract

Openness and free information sharing amongst scientists are supposed to be core norms of the scientific community. However, many studies have shown that these norms are not universally followed. Lack of openness and transparency means that scientific problem solving is constrained to a few scientists who work in secret and who typically fail to leverage the entire accumulation of scientific knowledge available. We present evidence of the efficacy of problem solving when disclosing problem information. The method's application to 166 discrete scientific problems from the research laboratories of 26 firms is illustrated. Problems were disclosed to over 80,000 independent scientists from over 150 countries. We show that disclosure of problem information to a large group of outside solvers is an effective means of solving scientific problems. The approach solved one-third of a sample of problems that large and well-known R&D-intensive firms had been unsuccessful in solving internally. Problem-solving success was found to be associated with the ability to attract specialized solvers with range of diverse scientific interests. Furthermore, successful solvers solved problems at the boundary or outside of their fields of expertise, indicating a transfer of knowledge from one field to others.

Paper Information