GOSH, that’s handy: open-science hardware


Global Open Science Hardware extends the philosophy of open source coding to making real objects. It is rapidly gaining importance as hardware manufacturing becomes more digital and DIY, with advances, such as 3D printing and modular electronic controllers. This brings exciting new opportunities for collaboration, both between academics and with interested citizen scientists.

A few weeks ago, a group of international pioneers compiled a manifesto for the Open Science Hardware movement at the Gathering for Open Science Hardware (GOSH) meeting in Geneva, Switzerland. This movement aims to reduce barriers between the various creators and users of scientific tools. The values condensed in the manifesto align well with the wider Open Science movement; they have served the pioneers well while disrupting the “business as usual” community. The truth is, not every development needs exclusive legal protection, either in hardware or software. Sharing can create large and active user communities that add value to the product or publication. What’s more, user-based development can be more suitable, more adaptable and much cheaper.

Consider the story of Arduino, an open source prototyping platform, whose adaptability has captured the imagination of millions over the last years. Technology magazines are full of news about the component that allows users to easily automate and control almost any hardware. While the component has found its way into household appliances, toys and workshops, there has also been an academic motivation for the development of Arduino: Tom Igoe, one of the co-founders and a professor in New York, got involved because it was the tool he needs for teaching interactive systems and arts, “I’m not interested in whether students learn to be good programmers, or good electrical engineers. I just want them to have a platform, with which they can build tools they need. I think there is an attitude in many fields that you should just accept what experts give you. That seems backward to me. Expertise should be used in service to one’s larger community.” Originating from a laboratory in that spirit is the Open Quartz Crystal Microbalance, a sensitive microbalance applied in chemistry, biology and material science when small weight matters. An openQCM team member Marco Mauro, details his experience, “When we tried the approach of open source hardware as a private company, by launching one of the first scientific analytical instruments in the world completely open, we would never have imagined this level of positive reinforcement. The community of users has helped us a lot optimising the device and inspired our next products.”

On the other side of the world, a US company from Ann Arbor, Michigan, with operations in Chile, called Backyard Brains, has made teaching neurophysiology cheap and appealing through demonstration sets combining electronics and cockroaches. They initially chose open hardware because they wanted to put their first dollar to work instead of serving legal fees. To date, they have spread thousands of educational tools around the globe from cyborg insects to microscopes, while maintaining a lean operation. That said, what must be the coolest open source microscope, so far, has been designed by Richard Bowman. It’s so exciting that it deserves its own Lab Times article.

These tools are appropriate for both professional and citizen scientists. Targeting the latter is the Civic Laboratory for Environmental Action Research (CLEAR), a feminist Open Science Hardware lab in Canada. They create do-it-yourself monitoring devices, or trawls, that target marine plastics, so people most affected by pollution can investigate their environments. The director Max Liboiron is also an advocate for a thorough community engineering approach, “We recently tested our open science hardware trawls against the expensive industry standard, so we can be sure that our DIY versions capture data comparable to other research tools, and it got a lot of media attention.”

Joshua Pearce, author of the book OpenSource Lab has been using open hardware in his lab for several years already. For us, he summarises, “Now that most labs have access to digital fabrication equipment such as 3D printers, it just makes sense for scientific equipment to be open hardware. It provides access to high-end scientific tools at low costs, while enabling reproducibility of experiments by replication of equipment itself. At the same time, the more stringent sharing of source code for the hardware makes customisation of tools easy. Hundreds of tools are already available on the web and more are added or derived from them every day.” Still, much needs to be done to make open sharing of science hardware designs the status quo. Currently, scientists often publish results without providing information about the hardware used to obtain them, particularly if it’s home-made. To change this, a lot of infrastructure has recently been created that addresses some of the open hardware-specific challenges. Two new journals are being created, to provide a platform for academic exchange and to enable further recognition of involved scientists: HardwareX and the Journal of Open Hardware (launching later this year beside the existing Journal of Open Research Software, but submissions are already welcome). Business models based on open source hardware are tested by an increasing number of start-ups and studied by academics. Licences specific to open hardware are created by the likes of CERN OHL, TAPR, and Solderpad. And the open source documentation software DocuBricks is developed by community members, which makes creating good instructions easier for hardware makers. This addresses an important concern of the community about quality management and the interpretation of the open source hardware definition. Many currently released instructions are step-by-step guides that enable users to recreate hardware. But to be called open, they also need to contain modifiable design files with information that gives power to the community to creatively modify. It is worth writing a documentation that communicates the design rationale and allows for modularity. Only when other makers can improve and adapt the design, can we unleash the true power of open sourcing.

If you want to benefit from more handson teaching, improved impact opportunities, better reproducibility and new pathways for collaboration at lowered cost, there are many ways to get involved: (1) Talk about it! (2) Start creating hardware. (3) Remember that documenting and sharing is worthwhile for you and essential for the community. (4) Get your hardware designs published! As early free software pioneer Dennis Allison said, “Let us stand on each other’s shoulders, not each other’s toes.”


Article by Tobias Wenzel and Robin Lamboll, first published in the Lab Times. Original at: