An Open History of Science - ScienceOnline2010 (#scio10)

This is the brief presentation I gave on Saturday, Jan. 16 as part of this year's ScienceOnline conference. I was thrilled to have PZ Myers, Greg Laden and Janet Stemwedel present (the latter of whom posted her thoughts on the session).

John McKay and I led a discussion on the intersection between open access and scientific innovation. See the program description here and these posts for more information. In John's section he emphasized how the early history of scientific publishing was one where individual researchers simply pooled their letters into journals and shared them with one another as they built on each other's ideas. Frequently the ideas they discussed would be subject to censorship by political or religious authorities and the tension between open science and closed societies has long been a factor in how successful scientific innovation has been in a given time.

As I discuss, this history can help us inform the present considerations of open access publishing and offer a guide as we consider future policy decisions.


An Open History of Science
ScienceOnline 2010
Eric Michael Johnson

What I want to talk about is very simple. Throughout history there has often been debate about how open science should be, who should be included and where the resources would ultimately come from. However, there has never really been a debate on the one essential. Science, in order to function properly, must be open.

But what does it mean for science to be open? I view open science to basically involve three things: open societies, open access, and open communication.

But the key to the second two is the first. You must have an open society to foster open science.

The great sociologist of science Robert K. Merton made this basic point in a series of papers written during the build up to World War Two. Merton was worried about the state of science during this time. One worry he had was that, in some societies, he wrote "scientists are required to accept the judgments of scientifically incompetent political leaders concerning matters of science."

Now, we are understandably outraged when scientific results are censored for political expediency, as was the case with a number of EPA and climate science reports by the previous administration. But Merton was worried about something deeper.

It's not just individual politicians, but institutional factors that can undermine the free flow of ideas and information, what Merton called the "ethos of science." As he wrote:

The substantive findings of science are a product of social collaboration and are assigned to the community. They constitute a common heritage . . .

I believe this is an important point. We learn from one another. Science is collaborative. Even the lone researcher is inspired to take on their project based on work that has come before. Therefore, the intellectual property of science, the ideas produced, are communal and feed back into the society to produce still more ideas. Merton went on to say:

The institutional conception of science as part of the public domain is linked with the imperative for communication of findings. Secrecy is the antithesis of this norm; full and open communication its enactment.

Merton emphasized the Nazis during this time, but let me highlight another example. The Soviet biologist Trofim Lysenko was a mediocre scientist but a gifted politician. Lysenko insisted that his research, which rejected Mendelian genetics and was based on Lamarck's theory of acquired characteristics, would embolden Soviet crop production. This was exactly what Stalin wanted to hear and Lysenko was made official head of Soviet biology for nearly forty years. The closed Soviet system rejected any claims from his scientific critics and Lysenko, perhaps unconsciously, perhaps not, cherry-picked the data that he believed the Soviets wanted. The results were disastrous.
Innovation in Soviet biology was stifled for a generation because of scientifically incompetent political leaders and an institution that was contrary to the ethos of science.

If full and open communication is the ethos of science, one of the major barriers is open access. According to Robert Merton we live in an open society. This is true but there's not a simple binary between open and closed.

There exists a continuum and most societies lie somewhere in between the two poles. A case in point.

In March of 1950 the US government incinerated the entire month's print run of Scientific American. The issue was destroyed because physicist Hans Bethe wrote an article about the worldwide implications of nuclear war. The government's position, as stated by the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, was that a few lines of technical information about the hydrogen bomb was "restricted data" and could not be disclosed. Scientific American's publisher, Gerard Piel, objected saying that any information about the bomb had previously been made public elsewhere. According to an interview with Piel in the New York Times, this argument was disregarded and all 3,000 copies of the magazine were "cut apart and burned in the incinerator." The AEC took the added steps of then taking the linotype slugs to the smelting room, destroying the printing plates, and confiscating all early proofs of the article. All evidence of Bethe's original article on the hydrogen bomb afterwards ceased to exist.

Of course, we need to remember that this was a time of tremendous fear, and governments rarely respond well during such periods. After all, the unprecedented secrecy of the Bush administration was under the cloak of national emergency. So perhaps we can understand such heavy-handed censorship in the early period of the Cold War.

However, this event took place one month after Scientific American published another article in which the physicist Louis Ridenour condemned Truman's unilateral decision to develop the H-bomb as "authoritarian."

Ridenour further wrote that: "A government does not adequately protect its citizens by taking decisions for them that they can neither know about nor take part in." The issue of Scientific American destroyed by the government was intended to rectify this situation by informing the public about the scientific concerns.

A nearly identical case occurred in 1979 when a freelance writer for The Progressive meticulously assembled an article from entirely public sources on the science of the hydrogen bomb. However, once again the information was deemed "restricted data" by the government and the article was destroyed. However, not all bans are so overt.

Congressman John Conyers, who is exceptional in other regards, has introduced House Bill HR 801: The Fair Copyright in Research Works Act of 2009. This bill, which is currently before the House Judiciary Committee, would limit access to peer-reviewed journal articles and would reverse the National Institutes of Health public access policy which allows for government-sponsored research to be freely available to those who pay for it.

The watchdog group has shown that the bill sponsors have received twice as many campaign contributions from the publishing industry as have all other members of the Committee. But more important than the money itself is that donations bring access. This bill is supported by the powerful lobby of the Association of American Publishers, who state that it would "recognize the importance of added value in quality assurance controls" that journal publishers argue they contribute in the form of ensuring reliable and cutting edge research.

Last summer the cartoonist Jorge Cham published a series of comics exploring the economy of scientific publishing and he synthesized our current system extremely well. Scientists send their work to journals for free, volunteer scientists review their work for its scientific value, and then the journal bundles it and sells it back to those scientists for a profit. Now, being the good researcher that I am I didn't just take this comic at face value. So I did what any modern day scholar does and went to my extensive Twitter contact list.

I wrote to Henry Gee, the Senior Editor of Biological Sciences at the journal Nature, and I asked him, "Does this basically sum it up?" To which he replied, "Yes. That's pretty much it." In an earlier panel we were talking about social media and science reporting. Now we know we can use twitter as a tool for investigative journalism.

But this has larger ramifications than science bloggers being able to avoid a pay wall. Here we have institutional factors preventing poor communities and developing nations from accessing scientific ideas. Considering that the greatest issues involving climate, population, pollution and conservation exist in these communities the dearth of access to subscription journals is of paramount importance.

However, many scientists have a different proposal. In 2001 the Public Library of Science published an open letter signed by more than 38,000 scientists. The letter stated that:

Scientific research and ideas should neither be owned nor controlled by publishers, but should belong to the public and should be freely available.

This is a growing movement that is seeking to address the institutional problems that are currently acting as barriers to open access. The Directory of Open Access Journals now counts 4,570 journals that are available to anyone with an internet signal, and that number is growing every month.

Open science has not only been essential to the history of scientific innovation, we believe that it is essential to our future.

More like this

Session description: We will be talking about how the history of science and the history of the open-access movement have intersected. Steven Johnson touches on this theme in his latest book, The Invention of Air, in that 18th century British polymath Joseph Priestley was a strong advocate of…
Scientific innovation relies on open communication and always has. It has only been through the free exchange of information and ideas that scientific pioneers have expanded the boundaries of knowledge. Through books, pamphlets, letters, journals, and now blogs, scientists communicate their…
OA pillars The following are excerpts from the journal Nature regarding the Public Library of Science. These were located with a simple search for the phrase "Public Library of Science." For each item, I provide the source, and a selected bit of text. I have no selection criteria to report,…
In an Open Letter to the American Chemical Society my Scibling Janet Stemwedel at Adventures in Ethics and Science, an ACS member, asked several pointed questions about how the Society was running its publications. One of the flagship publications is Chemical & Engineering News, whose editor in…

A possible counterexample to your thesis is how the Bayh-Dole Act, which allowed universities or researchers to have intellectual property rights in products of federally funded research rather than those going into the public domain, apparently resulted in a proliferation of genomics research. That field has now begun to become far more closed, as the gold rush to stake claims on genetic information has proceeded. Is HR 801 supported by genomics companies as well as publishers?

BTW, Merton's norms of science are countered by Ian Mitroff's counter-norms of science, which include a privacy/independence/isolation counter-norm.