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Guest Blog

Commentary invited by editors of Scientific American

The Open Science Paradox

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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.

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

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