Open science! by L. Shyamal

Introduction to today’s Guest Opinion Piece

The primary problem Indian naturalists face is lack of access to suitable information and knowledge about their own biodiversity.

Very often, this knowledge exists but is locked up in the minds and notes of experts. The common man is denied access to the fruits of  research, very often most of which has been funded by public money. Among the many inequalities in India, a de facto caste  system separates those involved in science from those interested in science.

Since this blog has by its licensing voted clearly and categorically for open science, I had the privilege of requesting Shyamal, a practitioner of making science open and accessible to all, to comment on this. Being a friend, he has obliged.

Open science!



Ashwin asked me to write about my rationale in contributing to science articles on Wikipedia and with some reluctance I have decided to try and articulate some of my reasons and it turns out that the linking ideas are more tortuous than I had first imagined.

Trying to think about how one acts requires an “out of one’s mind” experience! Probably the reason for the craziness of philosophers and the unreadability of their writings.

Bruno Latour

Bruno Latour

In the genre of unreadable French philosophy  are ideas from a French scholar named Bruno Latour, whose obfuscated writings have even prompted academic practical jokes (see Sokal affair), but some secondary interpretations of whose work are enlightening. Latour is a philosopher who has looked at science critically, a discipline that many would imagine is well-defined and not in need of any further thought.

Having been on several Indian campuses that ostensibly deal with science, I have often wondered if there was something completely faulty in the foundations.

India is perhaps unique in having a constitution that prescribes a “scientifc temper” as the duty of every citizen. This is dangerous country to tread on, especially when one does not have the required “clout”, academic or otherwise and even more so when most professional Indian scientists lead double lives, with even biologists (who in some other countries top in atheism) holding strong religious views, believing in miracles and praying that their papers get published. It would seem as if religious hierarchies are reflected in the hierarchies of science.

Indeed, questioning scientists is often made to look like blasphemy. When a scientist/ex-president touts the idea of linking rivers, it has be a “scientifically sound” idea right? Wrong, scientific ideas are always open to question and the scientific legitimacy/authority of an idea does not automatically transfer to all ideas produced by the same person.

Linus Pauling, one of the rare individuals to have received two Nobel prizes, had ideas on prolonging life that are today considered cranky. It is worth examining some ideas on science and breaking some myths. Latour suggests that real progress in science can only be made by breaking hierarchies and boundaries.

Thor Heyerdahl on 'borders'

Thor Heyerdahl on 'boundaries'..

Samuel Johnson - oet, essayist, moralist, novelist, literary critic, biographer, editor and lexicographer...

Samuel Johnson - poet, essayist, moralist, biographer, editor and lexicographer...

A famous quotation by Samuel Johnson, best known for his pioneering work in creating a dictionary of the English language, says –

“Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information upon it. When we enquire into any subject, the first thing we have to do is to know what books have treated of it. This leads us to look at catalogues, and at the backs of books in libraries”.

While Isaac Newton said (supposedly during one of his rare moments of modesty, but also disputed by some scholars who claimed he was mocking Hooke) that

“If I have seen further it is by standing on ye shoulders of Giants”

Latour essentially clubs the ideas in these two quotes into what he terms as black-boxes, ideas that are used as founding principles to develop other ideas and the networks of links between ideas and their authors. He suggests that scientists gain legitimacy in their writings in journals by providing these linking ideas by citing other sources and stating in effect that-

“if you find me wrong, you are probably finding something wrong in all these others that I quote”.

This kind of legitimacy gain by garnering support is seen in many areas of scientific research. In others, one needs merely to be be descriptive, placing the facts and assuring the reader that the way the facts were gathered is “verifiable” and “repeatable“. Verifiability and repeatability are key to making scientific facts what they are.

Suppose, one heard that “Cherrapunji has the highest rainfall in India” – how does one determine if it was correct ? To determine if that claim was correct, one would actually have to measure rainfall in a uniform way in all parts of the country, but we do not measure the rainfall at every point and secondly we do not know if the man who makes the measurement in Cherrapunji is actually doing it right. (If I remember right, Alexander Frater found the local government guest-house cook in charge of taking the rain measurements and noted that he used used kitchen utensils to transfer water from the rain gauge into a measuring cylinder).

And yet despite the lack of “accuracy” it seems like the readings are “verifiable” in that if one took the water out of the rain gauge and poured it into a measuring cylinder onself, it would probably be the same as what our “cook” produces.

To a large extent, a lot of research data that is “verifiable” or “repeatable” is not actually verified or repeated as it is beyond the needs or means of most.

Now our governments tell us that they spent X million on developing Y which is supposedly good for all the people concerned. All of a sudden we have the Right to Information Act and we expect our government to tell us how they are spending the X million. None of this information is probably “verifiable” but the provision of that information gives us some “faith” in the path taken.

Scientific research takes the same route. Bruno Latour takes a huge step and brings in the thesis that politics and science are indistinguishable and suggests that there is convergent path. A guiding implicit principle in both politics and science is an inherent “equality” in the abilities of individuals.

What does any of this mean for people who are interested in biodiversity?

Most of us look at our natural world, but as “non-experts” we take it for granted that

(1) “experts” know everything


(2) as a “non-expert” one cannot contribute much to “expert” knowledge.

There are the fortunate few who are in a good position, for instance, to identify species based on their experience, access to collections, literature and other knowledgeable people. Some of these people have made that knowledge more widely accessible by digesting it into guide books. Field guides and other such literature enable further knowledge gathering by recruiting new observers who aid in refining information on distribution, knowledge on life-history and so on.

This kind of “democratization” of knowledge however can be seen by some “professionals” as undermining their expertise or monopoly.

Knowledge monopolies have been and will continue to be destroyed; Google Earth lets me find my way around, search for addresses of shops. At one level, there is nothing new in Google Earth, the underlying data is merely held locked up by the Survey of India, ISRO and the local telephone directories. Put them all together, make it cheaply accessible, leaving people to help themselves and the results are incredible.

Governments on the other hand are not even able to share information between their departments, a recent road underpass construction in Bangalore which was supposed to be done in a record 48 hours ended up taking two months because nobody could warn the roads departments of the water pipes and telephone wires that stood in their way!

While Governments often complain of the ways that such information can be misused, museum experts tend to point out that the lay public are unqualified to use knowledge.

This kind of circular reasoning has helped knowledge hierarchies sustain themselves and it seems that the flattening trend that has been introduced by Internet based ideas such as Google Earth, Wikipedia and The Internet Archive will have increasingly greater effects on the daily life of individuals and if Governments allow it, greater efficiency in governance.

Someone recently posted a photograph of a moth from Texas and based on a minimal education in entomology and access to information on websites I was able to identify it to down to the species level,   something that one simply cannot do for an Indian species because our experts (Where are they? Where does one find one?) probably expect formal letters requesting identification or perhaps even payments.

A lack of pro-activeness, plain laziness or wilful refusal to divulge information? Hard to tell, but “good science” is not just about a publication record but about making the path to knowledge more accessible and open to all and nothing is gained by obfuscating the path or by sanctimonious claims to knowledge that has been “revealed” to a select few.

Indeed it is hard to understand why the Zoological Survey of India, the Botanical Survey of India, and the Bombay Natural History Society, all of which receive public funds from the Ministry of Environment and Forests should not scan and make its library and specimen collections publicly available. In the meantime, as individuals, one can do their bit by sharing their daily learning and adding a drop of knowledge into the ocean.

Last week I happened on a beautiful and common cockroach. My one-time advisor Professor C A Viraktamath kindly identified it as a ”Therea petiveriana” and a little bit of browsing allowed me to put together whatever little appeared to be known about it on

Now you should not trust any bit of information on that page, but the bits of information on that page can be followed up to the original sources and maybe some of the information that has been published in the cited journals will be found to be incorrect. These corrections should be published in a suitable journal and that Wikipedia page should then be corrected by providing a citation to the newly published research.

That to me is the process of making science visible.

Are Indian scientists interested?

Further Reading

* Pearson, D. L. and J. A. Shetterly. 2006. How do published field guides influence interactions between amateurs and professionals in entomology? American Entomologist 52: 246-2.

* Pearson, D. L. and Cassola, Fabio. 2007. Are we doomed to repeat history? A model of the past using tiger beetles (Coleoptera: Cicindelidae) and conservation biology to anticipate the future.
Journal of Insect Conservation, Volume 11, Number 1 / March, 2007  (Copy available on request from the butterflydiaries).

* Kristine  L. Callis, Lindsey R. Christ, Julian Resasco, David W. Armitage, Jeremy D. Ash,  Timothy T. Caughlin, Sharon F. Clemmensen, Stella M. Copeland, Timothy J.  Fullman, Ryan L. Lynch, Charley Olson, Raya A. Pruner, Ernane H.M.  Vieira-Neto, Raneve West-Singh, Emilio M. Bruna (2009) Improving  Wikipedia: educational opportunity and professional responsibility. Trends  in Ecology & Evolution 24(4):177-179.





The End

Walk the talk! Some of the images Shyamal made for use freely by anyone! (Free license - CC SA 3.0 ).

Walk the talk! Some of the images by Shyamal made for use freely by anyone! (Free license - CC SA 3.0 ).

Find a list of images already made and to be  made by Shyamal here. His contributions to Wikipedia? Here!

Explore posts in the same categories: guest posts, nature, open science, opinion, science, Wikipedia

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22 Comments on “Open science! by L. Shyamal”

  1. Meenakshi Says:

    Really good, Shyamal. Are u not in Bangalore??? Think we madecontact once- regarding Impatiens. Cheers..

  2. An informative post to say the least. Nicely done.

  3. Prashanth Says:

    Scathingly smooth! 🙂 If I were an ‘expert’, I would not be able to sleep without giving a thought on how to share my knowledge, after reading this. Of course, what immediately comes to mind is:
    Improving Wikipedia: educational opportunity and professional responsibility in Treds in Ecology and Evolution, as a follow-up read to your article. Thanks for taking up the effort of writing.

  4. Gopi Sundar Says:

    Very neatly put! When I need to pay for information in governmental departments (e.g., rainfall data is accessible from private vendors “recognized” by the appropriate department), that is truly vexing, and should be illegal. In such a IT-rich country, putting information on websites should not be difficult at all.

    If India had skilled writers to translate “scientific writing”, awareness of scientific findings would have been much faster – a smaller level of accessibility.

    The TREE article is very interesting indeed. The twist perhaps is that Wiki articles cannot be cited as a reference in manuscripts being sent to peer-reviewed journals.

    • Shyamal Says:

      Gopi, (and others) thanks for taking time out (and away from them cranes) to read and comment. At the very least, I have found researching for Wikipedia more enjoyable than researching for any degree requirement and I have learnt a lot more in the post-Internet years than in all my “formal study” years and have never had easy access to the few decent libraries, (IISc once told me that I needed to have a Ph D before (!) applying for permission while UAS told me that although an alumnus, I could only be admitted if I was working with a government department), and I think that many institutional users seem to forget that all their e-Journal access that they take for granted is not available to their less fortunate brethren in schools and universities.

      The kind of difference in access is enormous and I can guarantee you that even high-school kids would be much enthused if at least a few central libraries gave them the kind of journal access that some academics have. The average public library if you could call it that even in highly literate areas such as the Bangalore region merely buys a few newspapers and magazines. Definitely not something that you would want to visit if you wanted to research something for your next paper. It would not even help the Government folks do a better job.

      The pity is that there are very few who would want to protest this kind of inequity. The more academically oriented may not complain and may manage with personal contacts in institutions that can afford Messrs. Elsevier, Blackwell, Springer et al. while others will never know what they missed all along and will have nothing to complain about.

      This rather loose note is just a few rag-tag ideas that one hopes would prompt at least a few academically oriented folks to look beyond personal credit, citations currency or self-promotion. One does not come across many India-topic editors with the ability to cite scholarly works although there academics from other parts of the world who at least dip in to see how their favourite topic is developed. Others actually makes their students improve Wikipedia articles and these are term assignments that students are evaluated on for which they get credit.

      There is enough literature on the topic and I do not think I need to point them out, but I am tempted to point out a few particularly interesting ones.

      Quotable quote “Praising it [Wikipedia] on an academic listserv is still a reliable way of provoking a fight.” from:

  5. rocksea Says:

    I guess India is waking up slowly. There is a lot of group activities and team work going on in the recent years. Results from many of these are shared through email groups, websites, seminars etc. I guess soon we will be at a level in understanding and identifying species like you said, for eg: an indian moth.

    However, hardcore research is something else, and specific research on specific species could mostly be carried out by institutes like bnhs only. I am not sure if the immediate results from these – the research publications – are free or widely available. Or if it should be. Having the research publications at a price would mean aiding and keeping the publication wing active and surviving. I guess it is the same with other countries too. You talked about funds recieved by the institutes from the govt. Are these funds comparable to the standards?

    Anyways, I would completely agree in – digitizing old and publically unavailable books and publications in these institutes – and making them freely available, for the benefit of nature conservation and awareness and further research.

    The research institutes, anywhere, are sitting on a lot of high quality, useful data… I am a climate researcher, and I know of Indian and foreign institutes which are very fuzzy in distributing the data they have; data which would have surely made imrovements in understanding the regional and global climate. I should but say that slowly they are realizing the worthlessness of keeping all the data without doing anything. Changes are happening here and there..

    Great topic to talk and think on! Thanks, Shyamal and Ashwin. Shyamal, your illustrations are simply superb – and useful too!

    • Shyamal Says:

      The “moth identification” example is a good case to look at – there are lepidopteran collections in several Indian repositories and there are people out there who have been working for years but do not help new-comers. But the single case that you point out is a self-organized community, thanks to Vijay Barve and the single expert who has been dealing with all the queries is Ian Kitching at the NHM UK. And it is not like he get a special salary to lend a hand to queries from all around the world.

      On the other hand there are numerous salaried scientists in the ZSI and BSI who are specifically supposed to help the progress of India in these fields.

      Peer-reviewed journals represent the higher end. Raising the lower end is also needed. I recently came across a BNHS study recommending that airfields could reduce the bird hazard to aircraft by drenching the runways with pesticides (and that too systemic, I think it was !) . Now that is something that almost anyone with a bit of training in entomology, plant protection, ecology or pesticide chemistry will find a bit annoying. By making information on pesticide safety and usage. One could prevent any such misguided actions resulting from poor quality science. Making high quality information free has the ability to pull up the lower end, you could say, you know – “its EVEN mentioned on Wikipedia !”

  6. Janaki Turaga Says:

    Thanks Ashwin and Shyamal for this very timely and apt intervention. Indian science is still straitjacketed in knowledge is power, hence withhold it mode. The decentralisation of knowledge from universities and research institutes, into the larger public domain is the least on their agenda for a variety of reasons. In this IT savvy age, we do not have a good field guide for insects. How do we know our own biodiversity and take steps to conserve it-especially when we dont understand our own ecosystems.
    Added to which is the slow dying out of our native understanding of nature and ecosystems. The loss of folk knowledge is immense and what little documentation that exists is limited. We lose out in every which way-a too top heavy science and a nearly absent bottom up science.

  7. flowergirl Says:

    I enjoyed reading this essay. And I agree totally that my own personal adult “research” has probably taught me more than my school and college books!

    However, my feeling is that if academic institutions do not join the open-source-learning model of the internet, they will be left behind. There are a whole band of people like Shyamal, who are willing to voluntarily share their expertise, and this will slowly link into a loose network.

    Yes, Wiki is not entirely reliable, but the citations given below each article help so much.

  8. Aletha Says:

    “….museum experts tend to point out that the lay public are unqualified to use knowledge”

    This is very true. Though if farmers go under the label of lay public, I am sure they would know 10 times the flora and fauna in their neck of the woods as compared to any “scientist” sitting in the lab labelling “scientific” specimens.

    All our museums are static heritage monuments. If only they could help spread the same “scientific” information in lay men’s terms, it would help raise interest and passion in even lay people.

    It’s often easier to remember the local term rather than the scientific term and identity with a region then comes so much easier.

    Databases in India are locked in as private or institutional information. As an archeologist, I often heard people refer to “their sites”? How can a site belong to any one person or individual? They have gotten money to explore and excavate it and submit the results, after which the site belongs to the nation.I guess the same belongs to many disciplines, not just in India but also abroad. Knowledge is power, but sharing knowledge is like an investment that can only reap better fruits- take the example of hybridization.

    I do hope we, the lay can help to add to the rich database, by learning from the “experts”. Science was “created” to help explain the unexplainable, not make it more distant- which unfortunately it has just done that and continues in some pockets.

    • L. Shyamal Says:

      Aletha, it is interesting that you bring in the field of archaeology into this. Yes, I guess all fact and artefact collections become more interesting when collated and shared.
      One really wonders if the Colonial spirits behind many of our establishments were not more broad minded. Having looked at some of the available materials on Edward Green Balfour, the founder of the Madras and Bangalore museums, one can easily imagine him rolling in his grave if he could see the current situation.

      Apart from the libraries, museums archives seem to have become particularly unusable or hard to use by Indian scholars. While Indian ones are unhelpful to say the least, some like the Natural History Museum in London are, one is told, incredibly expensive to consult with day rates in the vicinity of 500 GBP !

      I heard a very saddening tale from a now senior Indian ornithologist who happened to visit Bombay and decided to try and look at the bird collections there. The person in charge told him that only members were allowed. The irony was that the BNHS was holding a Salim Ali centenary celebration the same evening and there the speakers apparently went on and on about how a young boy named Salim Ali became interested in birds thanks to a guided tour of the collections by W S Millard.

      One wonders how many hundreds of Salim Ali’s could have been produced, if the true value of that event had been imbibed. Enough to the likes of Eha ( ) roll in their graves!

      That said, I have to say Wikipedia allows one to interact with some some incredible museum folks who have gone out of the way – to the point of bringing tears to ones eyes really – like these high resolution photos of Parnassius (Apollo butterfly) specimens from British India that include “types” – thanks to curators like Robert Nash of the Irish museum who have taken to sharing their holdings sans borders. Others like Doug Yanega and several others help in identifying photographs of specimens from around the world and all these get added to the relevant articles and help in the growth of articles on Wikipedia.

      Interestingly there was a recent event in Australia where libraries, archives and museums sought to find how they could use Wikipedia.

      One just hope that good sense will prevail in India. But I think we all have to do our bit to raise consciences. I am particularly happy to see that my rather ill-conceived note has struck such a common chord here. Thanks all for the wonderful feedback.

  9. Snigdha Says:

    very interesting and inspiring. Its actually difficult for a zoology graduate to go out in natural world and identify the species. AS you have mentioned that ZSI or BSI should open their specimen collection for public, I think more then that I e-groups or the communitity networking site are doing great in order to help the youth in issues they are interested. I came to know about your article through a yahoo e-group only. Field guides are really very helpful and if anyone are truly interested in knowing the flora or funna, they can start in the area arround their homes only.
    Thanks for writing this wonderful article. Being youth, I feel I can surely start a revolution. Hope people like you will help me in fulfilling this dream. A ‘non-expert’ with help of an expert can make a differnce which we are wittnessing now in form of wikipedia or google.

    Thanks & Regards

    • L. Shyamal Says:

      Snigdha, I am glad you found it inspiring. There is another thing that you have reminded me of which is that youth and life are fleeting.

      A lot of young scientists and think of making their information available on their websites. This is copyrighted. A lot of young photographers put up their copyrighted images on various websites. Now there is a problem in that websites are short-lived as can be interests and enthusiasm and we are all most certainly short-lived. This results in the termination of efforts and the next generation has to starts all over again. The lack of long term data preservation policies and allowance for long term survival is another thing that is rarely considered in most biodiversity database projects.

      That is one of the greatest lessons of Wikipedia and the policy of allowing future work (by free licensing to overcome the problems of copyright) to let new forms of organization take on where things ended even if the organization and system behind Wikipedia went defunct.

      • Snigdha Says:

        Thanks Sir for your kind reply. Please suggest how we can work in biodiversity conservation and long term data preservation. I am part of a youth network who are willing to take actions in order to conserve the nature. Also if you can add something on role of biodiversity conservation on combating climate change. My email id is I would love to give details about our network if required.

        Thanks & Regards

  10. […] is both a theorist and practitioner of open science. Read Shyamal’s views on Open science here on this very blog. And the article I have named […]

  11. Rohit Jha Says:

    How true the article is Shyamal sir! At 20, I’ve found it very difficult to access good quality research papers without paying a hefty fee! Quite a few do offer full text download features now and hence I believe that things will only improve here on…Science will truly become ‘open’! 🙂

  12. Peter Steward Says:

    Hi Shyamal,

    Have a look at the site

    The objective of the website is to improve global nature conservation practice by sharing knowledge about the effects of conservation interventions. It is divided into three main parts:

    * Conservation Evidence online journal comprising original, previously unpublished observations. Each paper is a case study documenting the effects of a conservation intervention.

    * Summaries of previously published papers or reports that document the effects of interventions.

    * Synopses of evidence for particular species groups, habitats or issues. Synopses bring together all the evidence for given interventions.

  13. Peter Steward Says:

    Also is a good source of information for conservation management distilled from journal publications.

  14. […] the role of Open Science in India, and commented on influential papers on Wikipedia in Science.  Shyamal has also loaded hundreds of documents into where they are now […]

  15. […] two years after the most recent task force report. Shyamal captures this wonderfully in his essay “Open Science” – where the mere apathy and lack of access to public collections and repositories hinders […]

  16. vishnuagni Says:

    Great blog Shyamal! I think experts on efloraindia (indiantreepix) googlegroup is doing a great job on helping with plant/ tree IDs- but maybe nothing like this is there for animals/ birds/ insects etc.

    BTW- IIT Madras has published 2 small books- animals on campus, and plants on campus, that I thought was a good effort!

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