15 January 2011

Opening science

Biochem Belle, after watching a session streamed from Science Online 2011 (“What's keeping us from Open Science? Is it the powers the be, or is it … us?”; summary here), asked:

Open q: Will open science become norm w next generation of scientist? Or will we carry forward tradition/biases of current advisers? #scio11

I don’t think it will, at least not in the sense that its most progressive advocates envision.

And right away, there’s the problem: “open science” means different things to different people. I bet some people equate it with open access publishing – that’s part of it, but that’s not all of it.

What some people mean by open science is that they want to see raw data being uploaded and publicly available as it is generated. You might call this the Big Brother approach to science: absolute transparency and complete documentation of the process, not just the end result.

I don’t think that degree of openness will become the norm, for the same reasons that I don’t want to watch the “making of” a movie before I see the movie. The product should be more important than the process.

Besides, both in science and filmmaking, so much of the process is boring and tedious. I like DVD extras, but there’s a difference between just throwing in any random stuff to fill out the DVD and well-made documentaries.

Second, there are a lot of incentives and reasons for people not to open up. Some of them are even good reasons. The currency of academics are completed journal articles and books. Not manuscripts, not datasets. And I think that is good in that it encourages projects to move to more logical completion points, rather than sketches and half-baked ideas.

Look at Douglas Green’s simple recipe for getting that paper published and getting that grant funded:

Astonish us.

“Astonishment” is a near synonym for “surprise.” And you can’t surprise people when they’ve watched the whole thing unfold in front of them. If you’ve been actively blogging and tweeting and posting data on a project, you can’t build that anticipation, or give someone the satisfaction of going through a completed story. Alfred Hitchcock once said, “Drama is life with the dull bits cut out.” There’s something to be said for scientific articles and proposals to be science with the dull bits cut out.

Finally, you have to remember: This is academia we’re talking about. This is a world where the primary means of teaching is still the lecture, for God’s sake!

Many scientists are still mightily resistant to the whole idea of science blogging - which is naught but the tiniest of tiny cracks in opening up science. Within the few months, we had NASA and Felisa Wolfe-Simon saying, “Discussion about our paper on arsenic-tolerant bacteria must occur in the pages of peer-reviewed journals” (and who subsequently boasted of engagement after putting up one PDF before resuming radio silence); we had an editor telling bloggers that why a paper was retracted was “None of your damn business”; a scientist being told by colleagues that he shouldn’t have been blogging for the Society for Neuroscience; and editorials casting doubt on the trustworthyness of bloggers.

We who are online would like to think these are strange aberrant comments by laggards and luddites. They are not. They are the mainstream. How many other faculty do I know at my university who are actively blogging and doing other social networking stuff? Zero. I admit I don’t know all of what’s going on in other departments, but within my own department, there is me, and one of my colleagues is on Twitter. A couple maintain their own webpages. Nobody else blogs that I know of – at least, not about science.

Culture is an insidious thing. We often become more like our intellectual parents than we’d often care to admit.

But I am not entirely cynical about this. Some people see open science as a sudden releasing of floodgates. I see it more like an old door. The locks aren’t much of a deterrent, and the door is slowly being pushed open on rusty hinges. Science will become more open, but like the process of much science itself, it will be in tiny little steps.

Photo by visulogik on Flickr; used under a Creative Commons license.

1 comment:

Carl said...

Great post. I quite agree that "open science" has diverse meanings, and that of course the audience for your publications and grants isn't the audience for an open lab notebook. It's a tool, like twitter or email are tools. I agree, it won't become a norm any more than twitter will. Not everyone needs those tools, but they step in to solve particular challenges- be they cultural, collab/community discovery, more impact.

Great point on incentives and culture - certainly these determine behavior and change slowly. But when these things intentionally slow science down- the tragedy of commons where sharing data would be good for science but bad for me - it's worth asking how to change that. Having examples of people being *that* open and still Kor bc of it?) being successful may be able to help break some of the precieved cultural barriers.