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The Open Science Paradox

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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I just read and enjoyed Reinventing Discovery: The New Era of Networked Science, a new book by Michael Nielsen, recently reviewed by Bora Zivkovic. The book tells how science is undergoing a revolution where new global online collaborations face off against secretive old-school researchers and profit-hungry journal publishers. It urges scientists to fight for open access and open science—a call to action made more poignant by recent events. For example, this December, Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney and Congressman Darrell Issa introduced a bill into the House of Representatives that would effectively revert the NIH’s Public Access Policy that allows taxpayer-funded research to be freely accessible online. Reinventing Discovery will help you form a strong opinion of this bill.

But though its call to political action is compelling and clear, Reinventing Discovery left me pondering a puzzle. A key obstacle to open science discussed in the book comes from within: from scientists, ourselves. Established, senior scientists—maybe the ones who are not on Facebook yet—are often painted as fearing the open science movement or trying to block it. But ironically, it may be up-and-coming scientists trying to build careers that perennially have good reasons to be secretive, reasons that the age of networking will never negate. I’ll call this puzzle the open science paradox.

As an example of how scientists themselves can be obstacles to open science, Nielsen describes how Galileo carefully concealed his discoveries from his scientific rivals. And Galileo took it devilishly further than that; he sent letters to Kepler, his rival, teasing him with announcements of his findings encoded in anagrams. That way, if someone else (e.g. Kepler) claimed to discover them first, Galileo would be able to prove that he’d beaten him by decoding the anagrams.

Now I have a permanent job, and I’m an open science acolyte. But when I was a postdoc, I felt and acted much more like Galileo in this example. This kind of secretiveness and competitiveness is a way of life for many of the postdocs and other young scientists I know.

Nielsen does not shy away from this problem. He suggests some potential long-term remedies that senior scientists and funding agency staff could push for. For example, maybe we more senior folks could implement new ways of measuring scientific output. When we’re judging a job applicant’s CV, instead of counting publications, we could count citations of his online preprints or downloads of his software.

But I would like to place on the table the likely possibility that this obstacle to open science will stand forever. That’s because I claim that to get a good job in science, you must brand yourself to compete on the job market. And there will always be young scientists striving to get jobs.

Let’s talk about branding for a moment: the art of making an indelible good impression on as many people as you can. To a marketing guru, branding is associated with getting to the market first, being the first name in everyone’s mind. For example, Al Ries and Jack Trout worked in the advertising department of General Electric and wrote a string of classic, best-selling books on marketing and branding together. As Ries and Trout point out in The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing: Violate Them at Your Own Risk!, we all know Charles Lindbergh, but who was the second person to fly solo across the Atlantic? You have to get there first and you have to let everyone know you did it.

Galileo concealed his discoveries, as Nielsen points out, to buy time during which he could capitalize upon them. That’s a branding strategy. It’s just like when Science or Nature place an embargo on a paper so they can have time to work up a press release and carefully time it. It makes a bigger splash if you make the announcement simultaneously via many news outlets with full color graphics and video than if you just go to your local newspaper with a half-baked story. Every MBA knows that you only get one chance to make a first impression, and a bigger splash means a stronger brand.

So maybe we will never create a completely open science environment for ourselves. Maybe attempts to enforce a completely open science environment would only turn into an arms race, with young scientists forced to develop new ways of branding themselves. I believe we will succeed in opening science wider with new policies and legislation and that we will all learn to embrace more networked approaches to problem solving. But the open science paradox stems from a truth that seems likely to be eternal: old scientists remember their first kiss more than their second, and young scientists know it.

Marc Kuchner About the Author: Marc Kuchner is the author of the book Marketing for Scientists published by Island Press. For more information, go to or follow him on Twitter @marckuchner. Follow on Twitter @marckuchner.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. drparent 2:00 am 01/27/2012

    The concept of “open” science is the paradox, here, not the job problem. Science is essentially the repeated observation of events. No one “owns” the events; the science is not “closed”; science is science. Someone can observe an event and distribute knowledge of that event (a derivative process of repeatable events), but can never repeat the exact event itself – no observer can see the same event twice. The observer owns the observation of the event, and no other entity. Each observation of repeatable events, each observer, is just another point. We’re all just sharing memories – pathways from point to point to point. How is that a job? To hinder the progress of all knowing all free to steer the universe in whatever direction we see fit; to choose the current point of observation, anywhere in space and time, always knowing from, yet never knowing next (until we do)? Why, too, would we share what is false – universal dead ends of the past – observations that never were – nonexistent points?

    …Do all points exist? Do all paths exist? What does it matter if you’re stuck on one? Is there a path from here to *anywhere*? And if we can be anywhere we want to be, why choose *here*? Must we choose all? Are we forced? By what forces? Only the observable.

    The secret is not the knowledge. The secret is the exploitation of the knowledge. What you call a “job” is an exploitation. Be a scientist. Spread the knowledge.

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