how do I open … let me count the ways

November 30, 2010

Does it matter that definitions of what the ‘open’ in open science means are many and various? Naturally, I’ve asked everyone I’ve interviewed (that’s around 25 people) what ‘open’ means to them. Naturally, I’ve had 25 subtly different answers.

Within the community of scientists, a delicate structure of rules has grown up that sustains our trust in ourselves. We trust each other to cite references properly, to attribute thoughtfully, not to jump each others’ claims and knock down small children in the rush to publication.

Thing is, the rules are largely implicit and maybe you have to be a fully-paid member of the academy to get them. But as the furore over the leaking of emails from UEA (which I won’t cheapen by referring to as Climateg*t*) showed, in the light of common day, expectations can be very different.

The Russell Review – one of the tribunals that investigated the issue – found that while there was no reason to doubt the rigour and honesty of the scientists involved, there had been a ‘consistent pattern of failing to display the proper degree of openness’.

What exactly is the proper degree is a moot point. Does it matter that – as my 25 replies show – definitions of what the ‘open’ in open science means are many and various? I don’t think it does; the important thing is to be open in the first place – as open as feels comfortable. As the leaked emails saga shows, it’s easy to confuse ‘normal process’ with ‘deliberately secretive’. Openness can help … open things up. Humans have evolved pretty sophisticated ‘oops that’s not quite right’ detectors over the millennia but we need something to work with. We need the whole picture; the photograph, the list of other publications, the funders, the research question, the blog. It all helps build the narrative; even the twitter post about the particularly nice cup of tea they just had.