12/02/2014 06:16 am ET Updated Feb 01, 2015

The Next Enlightenment: Sharing Science With the World

When we talk about success, we often think of competition. But the true story of human progress is more frequently one of cooperation. As a species, evolutionary biologists tell us, we've always gotten farther together than we have by going it alone.

And perhaps in no endeavor is that more true than in science, where the seemingly esoteric findings of basic research often later lead to the applications that improve our lives and power economic growth. The smart phones and computers you're using to read this post, the medicines that cure our ills, the ways we feed a growing population in a finite world -- all of these, and more, were developed through the process we call science. Put simply, as I said during my testimony to Congress about the value of research and STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education back in July, science is the engine of human prosperity.

Information sharing fuels that engine. Scientists share the results of their individual studies in journal publications, building on their findings over time. As Isaac Newton famously put it in a 1675 letter to Robert Bacon, "If I have seen farther it is by standing on ye shoulders of giants." (You can see the quote about two-thirds of the way down the first page on a digital scan here.)

Arpanet, created to foster science communication in the 1960s, set the foundation for today's Internet. The resulting networks today harness an awe-inspiring amount of human collaborative energy. Wikipedia itself, for instance, says that its 50 million registered users have written nearly 34 million freely available articles in 288 languages. MOOCs--massive open online courses--are bringing instruction to millions, whereas sites such as the recently launched UNESCO World Library of Science build community and engagement around free science learning resources.

Citizen scientists now help the professionals conduct basic research by making observations or in other ways. More than one million volunteers, for instance, are working away on two dozen projects at The Zooniverse. Scientific American's own collaboration with The Zooniverse, Whale.FM, which lets you match up snippets of whale songs, in its first two months catalogued more than 100,000 such calls -- equal to a couple of years of work by lab researchers. Volunteers using the FoldIt protein-folding online game in three weeks solved a puzzle about an HIV enzyme[] that eluded researchers for years.

Scholarly publishing of scientific research is changing as well. Starting in the 1990s, Open Access journals, made it possible for anyone to view published papers without a subscription fee. (Open-Access journals instead use processing fees from authors and their institutions.) The notion is so popular that some funders, recently the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as well as the U.S. National Institutes of Health and others, are requiring Open Access as a condition of grants.

Articles in some of the most prestigious and highly selective journals, however, remain behind subscription paywalls -- accessible only to members of the academic institutions and libraries that pay for them, or to those who can afford pricey single downloads. In the face of open research, journal publishers have come under fire for trying to limit access to paying customers.

Meanwhile, because they need to share information to do their research jobs, scientists are often distributing those copyrighted articles among colleagues by email or file-sharing drop boxes anyway.

Now the Nature Publishing Group (NPG, part of Macmillan Science & Education) -- publisher of the journal Nature as well as the magazine where I work, Scientific American -- is launching a grand experiment. NPG is first to enable free content sharing of subscription articles. Using a tool called ReadCube from sister company Digital Science [], subscribers to will be able to share with colleagues full articles, along with personal annotations, from 49 owned journals.

"Fundamentally, content sharing is part of successful researcher collaboration, and that drives the advance of modern science," explains Steven Inchcoombe, managing director of NPG and president of Scientific American. "Helping this work better is critical to accelerating scientific discovery and hugely exciting to be a part of." (See my interview for further details.)

Librarians and other academic institutions will gain a better understanding of how their customers use their subscription offerings. And NPG, hoping to inspire other publishers to follow suit, will make the data available to them as well.

The public won't be left out -- far from it: more than 100 media outlets (including Scientific American) and bloggers who make science accessible will also be able to share full articles to provide deeper insights as a companion to their journalistic coverage.

"Information wants to be free," Stewart Brand famously said in 1984 at the first Hackers Conference. What people don't often appreciate is the importance of the rest of that quote and what it means:

"Information wants to be free. Information also wants to be expensive. Information wants to be free because it has become so cheap to distribute, copy and recombine--too cheap to meter. It also wants to be expensive because it can be immeasurably valuable to the recipient. That tension will not go away. It leads to endless wrenching debate about price, copyright, 'intellectual property,' the moral rightness of casual distribution because each round of new devices make the tension worse, not better." (The Media Lab: Inventing the Future at MIT, by Stewart Brand, Penguin, 1989.)

By harnessing the power of digital tools for collaboration in ways that work for scientists, librarians and publishers, the dual nature of information can enhance the progress of science--and benefit the rest of us, too.