What will Openness do for Science? More on Climategate

23 July, 2010

Thought provoking article in THE by Adam Corner, with more debate on climategate and the implications for science of open data and transparency in the research process.

A long article but worth reading in its entirety. Quoting fellow Cardiff sociologists of science Harry Collins and Robert Evans, the article essentially argues that science is messy and that moves for greater transparency risk undermining the scientific process through an over-idealised sense of its objectivity. Collins is quoted as warning that scientists could "...spend their whole lives trying to pick apart what other people had done, and the science would just grind to a halt." Peer review, like democracy, the article argues, is "the worst possible option apart from all the others that have been tried". 

Openness in the research process can nevertheless be improved, and not least by the greater involvement of 'citizen scientists' in research. However the article quotes Imperial College researcher Alice Bell,"...successful citizen-science projects work because they offer collaborative relationships between scientists and the public - not an adversarial auditing of data on the assumption that scientists are dishonest. The bottom line is that open access can never be a panacea for a crisis of institutional trust."

My own reading of the implications for those of us advocating 'better curation' is that we need to offer researchers realistic guidance on how to get the most benefit for their research, by exposing their work to the right degree of openness at the right time. We can identify the technical and organisational steps to help, but what is 'right' should mostly be determined in and by research communities, from evidence we provide. That might mean 'open to peers' for scrutiny and collaboration, rather than 'open to the public'.  The costs of open release might exceed the benefits for collaboration and participation- and for science and society more broadly. As well as guidelines and advice, we probably do need a better handle on how to identify these trade-offs, and more evidence of what works in which fields.