Clash of cultures: Why all science isn’t open science


Open Science is a great concept (and recently described really nicely by Titus Brown, who said in part, “scientific progress relies on the sharing of both scientific ideas and scientific methodology.”) This is a wonderful ideal, and it describes how a lot of scientists would like to act.

But as we know, most scientists don’t actually act this way, or at least not as strongly as they could. Why not? Titus suggests some answers to the question “why not open science?”, including that “sharing takes effort, while the immediate benefits of that sharing largely go to people other than the producer of the work being shared,” that “the mechanisms of sharing are themselves somewhat new, and are rejected in unthinking conservatism of practice,” that “metrics for evaluating products that can be shared are also underdeveloped,” issue related to intellectual property laws, the fact that “commercial entities that profit exorbitantly from restricting access to publications,” and that “non-profit scientific societies [lobby] to restrict access to scientific literature [because they claim] that the journal subscription fees support work done by the societies.”

In my opinion, the main issue is that we have a clash of cultures. The open sharing system, sometimes referred to in the ideal as the Scholarly Commons, in which many scientists would like to work, is a completely different system that the capitalist system in which we actually do live and work. Economics drives our lives, from where we work, how we support ourselves, how we get funding to do science, which science we do, which students we train or take advantage of or both (depending on your viewpoint), etc. Paula Stephan’s book How Economics Shapes Science goes into this in great detail.

The way I think about this is that we are trying to build a small enclave of sharing inside a wider world of competition. Wherever the worlds intersect, there is pressure from the larger, dominant system for us not to share but to compete. And because the commercial publishers and societies are firmly in the capitalist zone, they need to survive and to thrive, the way other companies and entities do.

So how do we move forward?  I think the best we can do is to try to push the boundaries of the sharing system outward, and where we can, to either pull the groups that we need inside, or replace them with groups that are inside or new groups that we create inside.  But even this is hard – the professional societies are generally already non-profits.  Second, we can recognize that what we are trying to do goes against the larger system in which we live, and try to set up local, self-reinforcing cultural and governance mechanisms, including well-thought-through metrics, to counter the external capitalist pressure. Unless there’s a breakdown in our capitalist society (perhaps a future without jobs,) I think this is the best we can do.



Published by:

Daniel S. Katz

Chief Scientist at NCSA, Research Associate Professor in CS, ECE, and the iSchool at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign; works on systems and tools (aka cyberinfrastructure) and policy related to computational and data-enabled research, primarily in science and engineering

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