Dialogue on Opening Science

At Research Cycle Research Daniel Mietchen has posted some interesting comments on the opening of science. Obviously, a lot of the contention around open data stems from tensions inherent in professionalized science itself. Very few scientists would be content with (or could earn a good living by) merely collecting or producing data. They want to interpret the data too; to say what the data mean. And beyond that, it’s nice to be right; to be the one to have the last word on what the data mean.
Now, one can always say “relax – truth will out!” But that takes time. In fact, it may take forever for “the” truth to come out. Even the best scientific theory can expect to find itself one day again under scrutiny when someone decides that what had traditionally been written off as experimental noise is actually a sign of a real and important effect or when it has to be reconciled with a newer, fashionable theory originating from another field.
Meanwhile, the world won’t wait. People want to know what the data mean right now. So, there’s demand (a market, if you will) for a proposed version of what truth could be and the scientist wants to be the one seen to be doing the proposing. In view of that, keeping one’s data ‘closed’ is prudent. It stops others from coming out with their own versions of what the data mean. Likewise, publishing one’s own account in a ‘good’ journal that gets people’s attention, easily trumps considerations of open access. If not, the ready availability of DIY web publishing would have put the journals out of business by now.
My point here is that perhaps the very idea of “scientist” as a vocation or something that offers a distinct career path is bound up with ‘closed’ notions of science. That while the opening of science may well be good for science understood as the rapid and reliable development of understanding of how the world works, it is not necessarily at all good for science when understood as a way of earning a living. Open science poses an ethical question for anyone who identifies him- or herself as a “scientist”: which is more important to you – developing reliable knowledge in the best way possible even if that means having to do something else as well in order to earn a living, or building a career that depends on being perceived as an expert to whom others defer?

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