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Brainhack: a collaborative workshop for the open neuroscience community


Brainhack events offer a novel workshop format with participant-generated content that caters to the rapidly growing open neuroscience community. Including components from hackathons and unconferences, as well as parallel educational sessions, Brainhack fosters novel collaborations around the interests of its attendees. Here we provide an overview of its structure, past events, and example projects. Additionally, we outline current innovations such as regional events and post-conference publications. Through introducing Brainhack to the wider neuroscience community, we hope to provide a unique conference format that promotes the features of collaborative, open science.

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Introducing Brainhack

Open science promotes collaboration through the transparent dissemination of ideas, tools, and data, with the goal of accelerating the pace of discovery. Although scientific conferences and workshops seem like a natural medium for brain researchers to meet and exchange ideas, in practice these events, often structured around the lecturer–audience paradigm, do not always provide sufficient flexibility or free time to fully exploit their potential. Borne from the technology sector, ‘unconferences’ and ‘hackathons’ are alternative meeting formats that emphasize the full participation of all attendees. Rather than having a prearranged program, the content presented at unconferences is dynamically determined by attendees, while hackathons feature unstructured time during which teams of participants collaborate intensively on various projects. These meeting formats have enabled rapid advances in computing technologies since the late 1990s, but they have yet to be widely adopted in academic research.

Now in their fourth year, international and regional Brainhack events bring together brain enthusiasts from a variety of backgrounds to build relationships, learn from one another, and collaborate on projects related to the neurosciences. Unlike traditional hackathons that tend to focus on computer programming, projects at Brainhacks can be completed using a much broader array of methods. Time is set aside for periodic unconference sessions whose content is determined on-site by the participants. The unconference sessions can feature different styles of presentations, including but not limited to: updates on ongoing projects, ideas that could seed future collaborations, panel discussions, or tutorials. In consideration of the ever expanding interest in the tools of open science, Brainhack has developed an educational component that runs in parallel with the hacking sessions in order to introduce the basic tools of open collaboration. This combined model encourages active participation and interaction between attendees, while also maximizing the topical relevance of the more formally presented content (see Fig. 1).

Fig. 1
figure 1

Brainhack [1] is composed of various organizational features from ‘unconferences’ and ‘hackathons,’ and includes a variety of scheduling components to encourage collaboration and introduction to open science methods

There is no ideal background, skill set, or experience level required for Brainhack attendees. Fully translating neuroscience data to knowledge requires expertise that spans biology, computer science, engineering, informatics, mathematics, neuroanatomy, philosophy, physics, psychiatry, psychology, statistics, art, and many others. The goal of a Brainhack event is to facilitate the cross-pollination of ideas and knowledge across these various disciplines and communities to accelerate the development of a richer understanding of the brain. In addition to sharing data and tools, attendees can contribute in a variety of ways. Philosophical debates about the meanings of cognition, coordinated efforts to manually segment brain images from different species, curating neuroscience literature, or helping others to understand the subtleties of diagnosing a developmental disorder are all examples of valuable contributions that have emerged at Brainhacks in the past (for further examples, see Table 1).

Table 1 Selected examples of Brainhack projects

Hackathons based on collaboration, not competition

The hackathon format gained prominence in the technology sector by providing a meeting model that targets specific project goals during intense time-limited collaborations. The competitive aspect of the traditional hackathon, while catalyzing rapid advances toward specific technology ends, is contrary to the founding principle of Brainhack, which is to encourage open, cross-institutional, and inter-disciplinary collaboration. Rather than subdividing attendees into competitive factions, Brainhack attendees are encouraged to work together in collaborative teams to solve problems of their choosing. In this way, rather than obtaining many solutions to a single problem, we aim to produce various solutions to many problems. Most importantly, we encourage the building of new relationships that continue to be productive beyond the end of the event.

Brainhack projects

Rather than focusing on a specific problem or toolset, which is common in traditional hackathons, attendees are encouraged to generate their own project ideas around which they can self-assemble into teams. As a consequence, some projects may receive more limited interest, whereas one might attract the majority of attendees. In this way, the projects developed at Brainhacks are elected by participation, rather than being pre-specified by the event organizers. This model is more conducive to collaboration than the alternative of organizing a hackathon around a challenge or competition. There are many different models between these two extremes; we are currently working on building thematic Brainhack events that bring researchers together to focus on specific questions of neuroscientific interest.

To date, projects completed at Brainhack events have included students interacting with more experienced researchers to learn about a new data modality or analysis method, inter-disciplinary collaborations to improve data collection, the development or optimization of data analysis tools, and testing hypotheses about brain structure using openly shared data. See Table 1 for selected examples of projects that have previously been initiated at Brainhack events, and [1] for a full list of projects.

Event organization

Brainhack events span 1 to 4 days and include a variety of content to make them both accessible and fruitful for a wide range of attendees. The format of the events is not fixed, but varies based on the needs determined by the local organizing committee. At past events, the schedule has included various components aiming to quickly integrate the attendees and generate an environment conducive to productive collaboration. We have found the activity categories included in Table 2 to be valuable elements of creating a productive environment.

Table 2 Programming components of Brainhack events

Practical considerations

To enable broad attendance by researchers, regardless of their resources, fees are kept as low as possible and many of the events are free. This has been made possible through generous financial support and meeting space provided by hosting institutions and corporate sponsors. When possible, lunch and dinner have been provided to encourage continued interaction between attendees throughout the duration of the event. We have also aimed to reduce travel costs by co-locating events with other international workshops, such as the 2012 Biennial Conference on Resting State Brain Connectivity in Magdeburg, Germany, and annual meetings of the Organization of Human Brain Mapping (OHBM).

Partnership with OHBM

The first annual OHBM Hackathon took place in Seattle, Washington as an initiative of the meeting’s 2013 local organizing committee, and its format has evolved subsequently to complement and bring value to the mainstream meeting. The 2013 event followed a traditional model of competitive challenges to accelerate the adoption of cloud-based open neuroscience tools by the neuroimaging community, while introducing a novel, conference-long ‘Data Science Room’ for collaboration. In 2014, Brainhack’s collaborative ethos was integrated, eliciting a strong, positive response from participants, and the OHBM leadership has continued to be very supportive of the Brainhack model ever since. The annual OHBM Hackathon has evolved to include a 2-day intensive hackathon and an additional educational day that is open to all OHBM attendees, and continues to include the Data Science Room to host educational content and open collaboration throughout the meeting.

Regional events

Brainhack began as international events that drew attendees from all over the world to work together in open collaboration. Early interest in transferring this model to the local level was tempered by fears that local events would not be able to provide enough content to attract attendees. Brainhack Eastern Daylight Time (Brainhack EDT) was developed to address these concerns by organizing several simultaneous events that are virtually linked to enable the real-time sharing of content across sites. Events were limited to sites in time zones within 1 hour of EDT to simplify scheduling. This innovative distributed model drew 242 attendees across seven sites located in three different countries, and has since been followed by Brainhack Americas, which extended this model to the entirety of North, South, and Central America (see Tables 3 and 4).

Table 3 Brainhack events occurring 2012–2014
Table 4 Brainhack events in 2015

Post-conference publications

While traditional conference publications are submitted in advance of the event, to complement the unique on-site organizational structure of Brainhack, a new publication paradigm is needed that accommodates its open format. In partnership with GigaScience [2] we have recently introduced project reports in the form of post-conference proceedings as a way to account for and promote the progress made at Brainhacks. Proceedings will be published annually, peer-reviewed by members of the Brainhack community, and are open to submissions from all the previous year’s Brainhack events. Further information can be found at[3].

Brainhack thematic series

Additionally, GigaScience [2] is hosting a Brainhack Thematic Series as a venue for publishing full research articles that feature open tools for neuroscience. The series invites submissions that embody the ethos of open science. Example topics include open source software projects, data repositories, meta-analytic and collaborative resources, and other open science initiatives, regardless of whether they have roots at Brainhack events. More information can be found at [4].


Brainhack promotes open neuroscience by offering unique opportunities to researchers from a variety of backgrounds to build collaborations and develop new skills. It is particularly valuable to junior researchers and those from developing economies who have limited opportunities to interact with peers and senior scientists outside their home institutions. Despite these successes, Brainhack is a nascent concept for scientific meetings, and there remains substantial room for innovation. To this end, we are excited to announce the Brainhack Proceedings and Brainhack Thematic Series for providing researchers with tangible scientific credit for their contributions to Brainhack events and open science. For the future, we will be working to expand the global audience of Brainhack by hosting events throughout Asia.

Availability of supporting data

More information about Brainhack, including projects from past and future events, can be found at [1].


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The authors would like to thank prior organizers and attendees of Brainhacks over the past four years. We would also like to thank our sponsors, whose funds have been used to enrich the educational experience at Brainhack and have provided travel support for attendees. These include (in alphabetical order): Allen Institute for Brain Science (OHBM 2013), Amazon Web Services (OHBM 2013, OHBM 2014, Boston 2014, Brainhack AMX 2015), Athinoula A. Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging (Boston 2014), Child Mind Institute, Inc. (NYC 2014, NYC 2015, MX 2015), FIU Division of Research (Miami 2014), Frontiers (OHBM 2014), Frontiers in Neuroscience (OHBM 2013), International Neuroinformatics Coordinating Facility (OHBM 2013, OHBM 2014, OHBM 2015, MX 2015), MATRICE (Paris 2013), Max Planck Institute for Cognitive and Brain Sciences (Leipzig 2012), Microsoft Azure (OHBM 2015), NIH BD2K Center (1U54EB020406-01) Big Data for Discovery Science (USC, PI: Toga, LA 2015), NIH BD2K Center (1U54EB020403-01) Enigma Center for Worldwide Medicine, Imaging, and Genomics (USC, PI: Thompson, LA 2015), NIH BD2K Supplement for NCANDA (3U01AA021697-04S1) and NCANDA: Data Analysis Component (5U01AA021697-04) (SRI International, PI: Pohl, OHBM2015, MX 2015), Organization for Human Brain Mapping (OHBM 2013, OHBM 2014, OHBM 2015), Ontario Brain Institute (Toronto 2014), Quebec Bio-Imaging Network (MTL 2014, MTL 2015), Siemens (Paris 2013), and University of Miami Flipse Funds (Miami 2015).

Competing interests

Donald McLaren is currently an employee of Biospective, Inc.

Authors’ contributions

RCC, DSM, PB, and BNN wrote the manuscript; all of the authors have contributed to developing the ideology behind Brainhack events. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.

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Correspondence to R. Cameron Craddock.

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Craddock, R.C., Margulies, D.S., Bellec, P. et al. Brainhack: a collaborative workshop for the open neuroscience community. GigaSci 5, 16 (2016).

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