Stop Being Alchemists!
A DISCUSSION OFOpening Up to Open Science
In “Opening Up to Open Science” (Issues, Spring 2022), Chelle Gentemann, Christopher Erdmann, and Caitlin Kroeger make a convincing argument for more open science. I commend their comprehensive overview of the benefits of open science while addressing common fears such as research being “scooped.” Here, I will expand on several aspects of open science that might be useful for a more holistic understanding.
The authors insightfully quote the Hippocratic Oath, in which physicians swear to “gladly share such knowledge as is mine with those who are to follow.” Observe that this statement is not preconditioned on any practical benefits of sharing knowledge. Indeed, we should recognize that the pursuit of knowledge is fundamentally iterative, where we always build on what came before. Even without practical benefits (though there are many), we have a responsibility to share our discoveries for those who follow. Open science embodies this responsibility and is a necessary condition for doing better science.
It is also instructive to examine the decades-long open-source movement, which advocates for the fundamental freedoms to use, study, build upon, and share. These freedoms align with the inherent motivation for open science. To paraphrase author and journalist Cory Doctorow, who has written extensively on this topic: the difference between alchemists and scientists is that alchemists kept what they knew a secret. They didn’t advance the art, and each one learned in the hardest possible way that drinking mercury is a bad idea.
Open science influences both outputs and processes, and is not limited to sharing papers, methods, data, or code. We should think imaginatively about the full breadth of outputs from the scientific enterprise. For example, in “Bringing Open Source to the Global Lab Bench” (Issues, Winter 2022), Julieta Arancio and Shannon Dosemagen illustrated the pivotal role of open-source hardware in science. Other valuable outputs may include educational or outreach materials, lab notebooks, meeting minutes, or even social media posts. Regarding processes, the UNESCO Recommendation on Open Science emphasizes the need for “dialogue with other knowledge systems [and] knowledge holders beyond the traditional scientific community.” This can be seen in the growing field of citizen science, where institutional researchers collaborate with diverse stakeholders to use science for advancing goals of mutual interest instead of merely “using” free labor to crowdsource data collection.
Gentemann and coauthors state that we “must change the game—the structure, the policies, and the criteria for success.” I wholeheartedly agree, but caution that academics are already overworked and underpaid. To bring them on board, proposed open science practices must fit into a comprehensive reimagining of research policies and institutions so that they will not be yet another box that a scientist must tick for professional advancement. In addition, a long-term goal should be engagement with legislators to reform copyright and patent laws, which, by default, criminalize sharing and stifle innovation.
We live in challenging times, with growing mistrust in science and monopolization of the entire research lifecycle by a handful of publishers with a closed-by-default approach to science. This peril is amplified by a desperate need for rapid innovation to overcome global crises such as climate change or pandemics. We do not have time, nor can we afford, to be alchemists. Let us work together to expand the circle of liberty for research and innovation.