Open Notebook Science

Published Nov-26-09

A crowdsourcing approach to scientific research to synthesize novel anti-malarial compounds. It’s called Open Notebook Science and was pioneered by chemistry professor Jean-Claude Bradley.

Professor Jean-Claude Bradley, United States

The Story:

Open Notebook Science Jean-Claude Bradley is Associate Professor of Chemistry at Drexel University and has worked in many laboratories throughout his scientific career. One aspect of lab life has always irritated him and that is the fact that most of the research work that scientists carry out does not actually get seen by anybody.

And so he developed Open Notebook Science, a crowdsourcing approach to research that is changing the way science is being communicated. It is the practice of full transparency; that is exposing a scientist’s record of progress, complete with raw data to the public in near real time. It is opening up the fairly secretive scientific world where open innovation and collaboration is not part of the culture.

Traditionally when scientists conduct experiments in the lab they keep notebooks, and they usually decide which parts of it to publish. The notebook is probably the most secretive document in all of science. It frustrated Bradley, but he couldn’t really do anything about it until the arrival of easy to use social software technologies such as blogs and wikis and free fully hosted services.

Pioneering Practitioner

With Open Notebook everything is published right down to the last doodle. “The reason for that is that we really want to see how science happens,” said Prof Bradley at a talk at Columbia University. “We want to see the failures as well as the successes we want to see the errors being corrected; we want to see how the whole thing happens.”

Prof Bradley introduced the term ‘Open Notebook Science’ in a blog post where he stated “….there is a URL to a laboratory notebook that is freely available and indexed on common search engines. It does not necessarily have to look like a paper notebook but it is essential that all of the information available to the researchers to make their conclusions is equally available to the rest of the world.”

Better Science

His firm belief is that a more transparent process will result in better science with results coming faster, as well as spurring collaborative communities to form. To demonstrate the viability of this crowdsourcing research Bradley started the UsefulChem Project in the summer of 2005 with the intention of synthesizing novel anti-malarial compounds.

The UsefulChem Project is conducting drug design research using Web 2.0 tools to combat malaria, one of the biggest killers in the developing world. The focus of attention is falcipain-2 a protein that plays an important role in the life cycle of the malaria parasite. Scientists want to design a drug to inhibit this enzyme and Bradley is working with a team of researchers all based at different locations.

Crowdsourcing and Collaboration

They are studying two docking sites on the enzyme. One group works on docking calculations which informs Bradley’s group which synthetic compounds they should make. These are then sent to another group to look at their feasibility. In 2008 Bradley’s group compiled a list of 71,000 potential compounds which were tested by other researchers. Some were found to inhibit the enzyme and stop infection of red blood cells, and a few could inhibit the enzyme but not prevent infection.

As with many areas of science things are always more complicated than they look, but the findings show that something is going on. Much more investigation is needed, but because it is conducted in the open anyone who takes an interest can drop in, see what’s happening and contribute.

Open Notebook Science has also received some extra funding so Bradley now holds crowdsourcing contests for students to work on different reactions and calculations. It all contributes to speeding up the research process.


The advantage of Bradley’s system is that it can be replicated by other scientists and scientific institutions, and some have started to show an interest and adopt Open Notebook Science for their own research projects.

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