We can’t do science without the instruments and equipment used to conduct experiments – and throughout history, scientists have made their own equipment. But anyone who has done this the “traditional way” – from scratch or by trying to decipher a photocopy of a hand-drawn diagram in a monograph – knows that it can be a tough exercise. Although this ancient art is still practiced, the majority of experimental scientists now purchase their equipment at significant cost.
This situation is now changing with a new platform that allows researchers to share and rebuild their own hardware designs.
It can be difficult to actually build the equipment. Low-volume scientific hardware has always struggled to benefit from economies of scale more common consumer items have. But that’s changing. With the rise of digital manufacturing, it is now possible to fabricate custom scientific components and tools for 1 to 10 percent of the cost of commercial scientific instruments using do-it-yourself 3-D printers (like the RepRap that can make its own parts), laser cutters and PCB mills.
Prof. Andrew Barry of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL), who published with Hardware X this year, agreed that the landscape of lab equipment is rapidly evolving:
Within the last 10 years, we have witnessed rapid changes in the availability and cost of hardware and sophisticated open source software. These provide the underpinning for non-specialists to imagine and create sophisticated and adaptable tools/systems in many application areas.
So that’s one part of the problem solved – the cost can be reduced using new technologies. But how do we solve the problem of reproducibility of the designs of the hardware? And how do we inspire researchers who come up with their own hardware designs to share them with other researchers?
Most researchers who develop their own hardware rarely get credit for the work they have done. There may be a loose credit in the methods section of a paper stating that a piece of hardware was modified or built to help conduct an experiment, but traditional journals typically don’t accept lengthy methods sections explaining the hardware in detail or how to reproduce it – or consider papers that focus solely on the hardware without any novel scientific results. So hardware designers who want to showcase their work – and readers who want to know how the hardware was built – are left frustrated.
A home for scientific hardware designs
There is a considerable difference in the ease of replication when comparing a write-up of the theory of an instrument functioning and having detailed instructions for assembly along with all the digital files to make it. This is where HardwareX comes in. As part of the Research Elements family at Elsevier, HardwareX provides a home for detailed explanations of how the hardware was made, can be used and how to reproduce it. It also enables the students, lab technicians and other scientists who helped to build the hardware used in experiments to gain credit for their work.
The journal is open access. Authors submit a short, structured paper validating the design of the hardware; they must also include the design files, either as supplemental files or uploaded in an open repository. Authors have to provide enough detail and have an open license attached to the design files allowing them to be wholly reproducible and modifiable.
Once the hardware paper is published, that’s not the end of the process – it can be linked to research papers that use the hardware, providing readers a clear example of the hardware in action while allowing the authors to publish their results in the specialist journal of their choice. The hardware paper becomes part of the research cycle, and we envisage that researchers will publish a hardware paper in HardwareX and then link to the hardware in all of the research papers that they publish using that piece of hardware.
This hardware could then be used by fellow scientists who may be struggling to find a solution or a tweak to an experimental setup – or it could enable researchers in a resource-constrained lab to conduct an experiment they could not previously have envisaged. Prof. Barry sees that as a vital part of the process:
HardwareX, with its open-access ethos and rigorous peer review, has established an excellent pathway for different communities to access knowledge and guidance for advanced devices and tools that would otherwise be ‘locked away.’ Researchers … have new opportunities to pursue different scientific questions using hardware that previously did not exist or was, for different reasons, unavailable.
We are on the verge of a new era when you read of the latest advance in your sub-discipline and then follow a link to the hardware paper published in HardwareX to download the equipment plans. The first nine papers we have published all show innovative hardware designs in a variety of research fields that you can easily replicate in your own lab. You can use them to recreate or perhaps improve upon the low-cost scientific open hardware alternative, and then you may push the next breakthrough.
By sharing, we all win and science moves faster than it ever has before.
HardwareX is an open access journal established to promote free and open source designing, building and customizing of scientific infrastructure (hardware). HardwareX aims to recognize researchers for the time and effort in developing scientific infrastructure while providing end-users with sufficient information to replicate and validate the advances presented. Read more
Joshua Pearce's book
Prof. Joshua Pearce is the author of Open-Source Lab: How to Build Your Own Hardware and Reduce Research Costs (Elsevier, 2014), a guide to making custom low-cost scientific equipment using 3-D printers and open-source electronics.