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Interview with Professor (Hardware) X

June 27, 2019

By Christopher Tancock

"How open source hardware articles are breaking down barriers and making science easier, cheaper and more reproducible"

In this article, Christopher Tancock(opens in new tab/window) interviews Professor Joshua M. Pearce(opens in new tab/window), Editor-in-Chief of HardwareX(opens in new tab/window) and finds out about why hardware articles are important, how they can help advance science and how they assist with reproducibility.

HardwareX is an open access journal established to promote free and open source designing, building and customizing of scientific infrastructure (hardware). Read more about the journal on its homepage(opens in new tab/window).

Tell us about your background and your field(s) of interest.... I started as a photovoltaic materials and device scientist. However, my frustration with the costs and lack of control I had making measurements with proprietary hardware, led me into the world of open hardware for science.

Where did the idea of HardwareX come from? HardwareX was started to provide a solid "properly done" hardware journal for scientific instruments. By proper - I mean there must be no impediment for others - either technical or legal - to reproduce, use, fix, hack or write about the tools. In addition, we wanted to reward all the researchers that were doing hardware design and fabrication with a legitimate scientifically rigorous journal dedicated to their work.

A common accusation is that "you can't publish hardware!". How would you respond? This is antiquated thinking and simply untrue. There have been instrumentation journals and scientific articles covering hardware for decades. Unfortunately, many of them were not overly useful for actually replicating research-grade equipment. They were largely theory focused with perhaps a cartoon diagram and if you were lucky a photograph. HardwareX is fundamentally different. For example, a system to help scientists study additive manufacturing materials(opens in new tab/window) was recently published in HardwareX with more than 100 figures and all of the code for CAD, electronics and software to run it. Or consider a USB-controlled potentiostat/galvanostat(opens in new tab/window) that can be used to help researchers develop battery technology. In addition, I should mention we are not alone – there are many other journals that publish hardware articles.

Why is it important to have a journal like HardwareX?

Most researchers need citable publications for their careers to progress and HardwareX provides them with a venue to publish their hardware work benefiting all of science. I think science is important for humanity. We have a lot of problems that need solving. I know that the use of the open source model accelerates innovation and development so applying it to science hardware seems like common sense. There is some evidence is this already occurring in science because of open hardware. HardwareX is part of the broader revolution underway for all of open science.

I see HardwareX articles are published with an open source license. Why is this

This is to be ideologically consistent and avoid the hypocrisy found in many copyrighted published “standards”. If you are designing open hardware that anyone can make, it is ludicrous to have the study describing and vetting the design to be behind a paywall just the same way it is borderline criminal to charge money for an international standards document. All HardwareX articles are freely available for everyone anywhere in the world under the OS license that the authors choose.

Do you think that attitudes towards hardware articles are changing or have changed?

For my generation and younger (and those with a younger mindset) I think it has – we are more open to the open source ethos. We think it is stupid to keep the details of your experiments secret. We want to share our work and have others build on it to push the entire field forward. I think most scientists would generally agree on this.

How do articles from HardwareX fit in to the existing ecosystem of journals, articles and databases?

In the ideal world every scientific article would link directly back to open source software to do the analysis and an openly accessible data set. Better still, the methods section would link to open standards and protocols being run on open hardware published in HardwareX. Science has a reproducibility problem in some sub fields. This would be completely eliminated if we could all download each other’s equipment files, digitally replicate the tools and perform identical experiments anywhere in the world. A bigger problem in my opinion is the cost of doing science. Many great minds are artificially blocked from helping the scientific endeavor because they cannot afford the tools. In general, open scientific tools costs only 1-10% of conventional ones(opens in new tab/window) – opening up fields to previously excluded researchers.

What is your proudest achievement from HardwareX so far?

The purpose of HardwareX is to help accelerate the distribution of low-cost high-quality open source scientific hardware. I think we have been very successful in doing that and we are only getting started. Many of our articles have been downloaded more than 10,000 times, which is normally only seen on real top downloaded papers in the more established journals. It is really gratifying to get thank you notes from scientists in other parts of the world that are making and using our equipment – or even better improving upon it.

What are the future plans for HardwareX? What are you looking forward to right now?

I am really looking forward to seeing more linked articles – where a HardwareX article is coupled to a more conventional scientific study. We are doing a trial test with Materials Design(opens in new tab/window). In the not-so-distant-future I would like this to be the norm for all scientific articles.

I note in your introductory article to HardwareX(opens in new tab/window) that you mention the X-Men as a model for what you're trying to achieve with HardwareX... If you were an X-Man, which one would you like to be (and why)?

I would have to say Professor X as he was the founder of the X-Men and able to get his motley crew of fictional mutants to work together as super heroes. Having his genius level IQ would be helpful, as would his telepathy powers. In the classroom I would know immediately if my students understood me, and I could direct inject knowledge into their brains that would make lectures much more effective. Plus, if I could communicate with all my overseas collaborators instantaneously with only my mind, we could get so much more done faster! Sadly, the evidence for non-fictional telepathy is weak. Until it is developed outside of comics and movies, at least we have HardwareX to accelerate science with lower costs and better science tools!!