Archive for LIGO Scientific Collaboration

LIGO and Open Science

Posted in Open Access, Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on August 8, 2017 by telescoper

I’ve just come from another meeting here at the Niels Bohr Institute between some members of the LIGO Scientific Collaboration and the authors of the `Danish Paper‘. As with the other one I attended last week it was both interesting and informative. I’m not going to divulge any of the details of the discussion, but I anticipate further developments that will put some of them into the public domain fairly soon and will comment on them as and when that happens.

I think an important aspect of the way science works is that when a given individual or group publishes a result, it should be possible for others to reproduce it (or not as the case may be). In normal-sized laboratory physics it suffices to explain the experimental set-up in the published paper in sufficient detail for another individual or group to build an equivalent replica experiment if they want to check the results. In `Big Science’, e.g. with LIGO or the Large Hadron Collider, it is not practically possible for other groups to build their own copy, so the best that can be done is to release the data coming from the experiment. A basic problem with reproducibility obviously arises when this does not happen.

In astrophysics and cosmology, results in scientific papers are often based on very complicated analyses of large data sets. This is also the case for gravitational wave experiments. Fortunately in astrophysics these days researchers are generally pretty good at sharing their data, but there are a few exceptions in that field. Particle physicists, by contrast, generally treat all their data as proprietary.

Even allowing open access to data doesn’t always solve the reproducibility problem. Often extensive numerical codes are needed to process the measurements and extract meaningful output. Without access to these pipeline codes it is impossible for a third party to check the path from input to output without writing their own version, assuming that there is sufficient information to do that in the first place. That researchers should publish their software as well as their results is quite a controversial suggestion, but I think it’s the best practice for science. In any case there are often intermediate stages between `raw’ data and scientific results, as well as ancillary data products of various kinds. I think these should all be made public. Doing that could well entail a great deal of effort, but I think in the long run that it is worth it.

I’m not saying that scientific collaborations should not have a proprietary period, just that this period should end when a result is announced, and that any such announcement should be accompanied by a release of the data products and software needed to subject the analysis to independent verification.

Now, if you are interested in trying to reproduce the analysis of data from the first detection of gravitational waves by LIGO, you can go here, where you can not only download the data but also find a helpful tutorial on how to analyse it.

This seems at first sight to be fully in the spirit of open science, but if you visit that page you will find this disclaimer:

 

In other words, one can’t check the LIGO data analysis because not all the data and tools necessary to do that are not publicly available.  I know for a fact that this is the case because of the meetings going on here at NBI!

Given that the detection of gravitational waves is one of the most important breakthroughs ever made in physics, I think this is a matter of considerable regret. I also find it difficult to understand the reasoning that led the LIGO consortium to think it was a good plan only to go part of the way towards open science, by releasing only part of the information needed to reproduce the processing of the LIGO signals and their subsequent statistical analysis. There may be good reasons that I know nothing about, but at the moment it seems to me to me to represent a wasted opportunity.

I know I’m an extremist when it comes to open science, and there are probably many who disagree with me, so I thought I’d do a mini-poll on this issue:

Any other comments welcome through the box below!