Five Challenges for Open Science

Can responsive, accessible, transparent science also be ethical, apolitical, and independent?

Five Challenges for Open Science

Just before the end of 2019, an interesting editorial by Marcus Düwell from Utrecht University was published in the journal Ethical Theory and Moral Practice.

In his piece, Düwell asserts that “open science” is a set of rough principles and initial assumptions which need to be more carefully considered and widely debated, especially before funding and policy stances are solidified and implemented, writing:

It is quite likely that in the future research funding will depend on commitment to open science principles. Conforming to open science principles may be decisive for the success of grant applications. So far, the open science principles are quite underdetermined. It will be the task for the years to come to specify those principles.

There are five “underdetermined” (i.e., vague) principles Düwell identifies:

  1. Open science presupposes that all research should be directly responsive to societal challenges. Düwell points out that discovery science and pure research often lead to more significant and long-lasting advances for society than tending to immediate, obvious concerns — and that the two are not mutually exclusive. However, bending funding too far toward open science could deprive funding to discovery science and pure research.
  2. Open science requires that research results be directly accessible to a broader academic community or even to society at large. Düwell points out that scientists and scholars routinely and justifiably use jargon, noting that such an approach “would make specialized research with technical terminology illegitimate. Nobody should embrace such a strategy.”
  3. Some open science principles require researchers to engage directly with societal actors and stakeholders. While acknowledging that this is often advisable, commendable, and realistic, Düwell notes that research into areas like Celtic language origins would become impossible in such cases, as the relevant stakeholders died centuries ago.
  4. Open science sometimes sounds as if it is opposed to academic freedom. Academic freedom is a thread in Düwell’s piece, one that ties all five of these points together — here Düwell notes that “academic freedom is a necessary requirement for any research. Researchers should be allowed to produce research results that nobody wants to hear. If that is not possible, research is worthless.” This has some bearing on Point 3, you’ll note — that is, engaging stakeholders can’t mean being beholden to them at the expense of academic freedom or research integrity.
  5. Open science seems to presume that research questions come from society and that academia is responsible for providing the answers. Here, Düwell rambles a bit, but seems to argue — rightly, I’d say — that academia is not a drive-thru window where society can order up research, but rather a farm where various crops are grown, hybrids developed, and techniques mastered. Consumption of the results comes later, and independently.

What Düwell seems to be identifying at a high level is that open science — as conceptualized currently in a somewhat vague and imprecise manner — could create inappropriate or counterproductive political pressures on scholars and researchers, pressures that could stymie or impede progress.

There is also the tension between preserving research communities and helping them interface in useful and appropriate ways with the broader society. Blanket open science policies could impinge on communities, divide them, or simply slow them down unless the way they work with society — or, more poignantly, how society views the relationship — isn’t carefully handled. In an era where media naturally provokes and divides people, the risk seems heightened if one element of open science is to make expose more scientists to the general public. Some members of the general public are pretty devoted to screwing things up.

In the US, we’re in an environment where researchers are subject to overt political pressures — to serve business interests, to help companies make profits by slowing or hiding uncomfortable findings, to remain passive in the face of environmental mischief. Major research and science branches of the government are being dismantled and attacked. In China, academic freedom is being actively throttled. Together, between the US and China, the two most productive research nations are in some ways already headed in the wrong direction when it comes to academic freedom and respect for research integrity. Open science could make things worse. Already, “transparency” has been weaponized to stifle the inclusion of scientific findings around public health in the US.

Going forward, it seems open science will only benefit from more discussion and debate aimed at clarifying protections of academic freedom, ensuring research integrity, preserving specialized scientific communication, protecting scientific communities themselves, and guaranteeing ethical research.

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