Putting open science into practice: A social dilemma?
First Monday

Putting open science into practice: A social dilemma? by Kaja Scheliga and Sascha Friesike

Digital technologies carry the promise of transforming science and opening up the research process. We interviewed researchers from a variety of backgrounds about their attitudes towards and experiences with openness in their research practices. We observe a considerable discrepancy between the concept of open science and scholarly reality. While many researchers support open science in theory, the individual researcher is confronted with various difficulties when putting open science into practice. We analyse the major obstacles to open science and group them into two main categories: individual obstacles and systemic obstacles. We argue that the phenomenon of open science can be seen through the prism of a social dilemma: what is in the collective best interest of the scientific community is not necessarily in the best interest of the individual scientist. We discuss the possibilities of transferring theoretical solutions for social dilemma problems to the realm of open science.


1. Introduction
2. The field of open science
3. The field of social dilemmas
4. Materials and method
5. Looking at open science through the prism of a social dilemma
6. Overcoming the obstacles to open science
7. Discussion
8. Conclusion



1. Introduction

Open science is the concept of making the whole research process as transparent and accessible as possible. It is a topic that concerns scientists, policy–makers, and the general public. Supporting open science is part of the European Commission’s Digital Agenda. As Neelie Kroes, Vice–President of the European Commission, put it: ‘I’m in no doubt we are entering that phase [the era of open science]: and that the impact will be good for citizens, good for scientists and good for society.’ (Kroes, 2013).

Open science in its current form is based on digital technologies. Online tools provide scientists with the technical means to collaborate globally and to share knowledge on an unprecedented scale. ‘The Internet and the World Wide Web provide the technical ability to share a much wider range of the evidence, argument and conclusions driving modern research. (...) The potential of online tools to revolutionize scientific communication and their ability to open up the details of the scientific enterprise so that a wider range of people can participate is clear.’ (Neylon and Wu, 2009).

Visions centred on harnessing the world’s knowledge have occupied intellectuals throughout history. For example, between 1936 and 1938 H.G. Wells developed the idea of a ‘world brain’ which functions as a universally accessible knowledge resource (Wells, 1938). In 1945 Vannevar Bush described his vision of the ‘memex’ which functions as a collective memory system that makes knowledge accessible (Bush, 1945). Recently, in 2012, Nielsen also described a concept of a form of collective memory system [1] whereby all forms of knowledge that are of potential scientific value are transferred onto a network in a format that is both human– and machine–readable [2]. Making knowledge resources accessible, searchable, and re–usable increases the chances of discovering previously unseen connections. ‘We are reinventing discovery, and the result will be a new area of networked science that speeds up discovery, not in one small corner of science, but across all science. That reinvention will deepen our understanding of how the universe works and help us address our most critical problems.’ [3]. Speeding up the progress of science and providing immediate access to scientific results is of crucial importance. In medical research for example access to knowledge about new findings can be a matter of life and death. In environmental sciences for instance comparing findings from different disciplines allows to draw more accurate conclusions about changes that are observed in the environment.

The potential of using digital technologies to openly share knowledge thereby revolutionising science, however, is not reflected in scholarly practices (Neylon and Wu, 2009; Procter, et al., 2010b). There is a considerable discrepancy between the idea of open science and scholarly reality. While many scientists consider openness in research valuable, few are actually willing to invest the extra time and effort as well as taking potential risks to make their research open and accessible (Procter, et al., 2010b). At the same time, the rapidly changing environment of digital technologies continually shapes the development of open science in its various forms. Thus, we consider it important to examine the current changes and to analyse them in the context of previous research.

In this paper we look at open science through the prism of a social dilemma. Based on the analysis of 22 semi–structured qualitative interviews with researchers from various backgrounds we identified a series of obstacles to open science which we have grouped into two main categories: individual obstacles and systemic obstacles.

In the subsequent sections of this paper we first describe the concept of open science and the relevant background concerning social dilemmas. Second, we describe our methodological approach and explain how we conducted and analysed the interviews. Third, we describe the identified obstacles to open science. Fourth, we reflect on possible solutions to overcome the described obstacles. And finally, we draw conclusions from the presented findings.



2. The field of open science

At large the concept of open science is nothing new. Historically, one can argue that the emergence of the scientific journal system in the seventeenth century marks a decisive step in the development of open science (Nielsen, 2008). From a contemporary point of view, the open science movement has gained momentum with the popularisation of the internet from the 1990s onwards (Lievrouw, 2010). Even though open science is not a new phenomenon, the recent technological developments have added a new dimension to it. Digital technologies constitute the technical foundation for the contemporary form of open science, allowing scientists to share knowledge and to collaborate in ways that were not possible before (Meyer and Schroeder, 2013). It is worth noting, however, that open science is not tied to the Internet and that scholarly exchange offline retains its importance.

There is no formal definition of open science. We have asked our interview partners about their understanding of open science and have received answers that differ in detail but share a general vision. This vision of open science is well captured by Nielsen’s informal definition: ‘Open science is the idea that scientific knowledge of all kinds should be openly shared as early as is practical in the discovery process.’ (Nielsen, 2011a).

Open science is often discussed as a phenomenon that has an enormous potential to revolutionise science (Neylon and Wu, 2009; Nielsen, 2012; Waldrop, 2008). Digital technologies are helping to transform scholarship and knowledge sharing (Borgman, 2007; Meyer and Schroeder, 2013). The open access movement (Berlin Declaration, 2003) has contributed to a global dissemination of knowledge. An increasing amount of scientific publications is made available in the form of open access. A recent report released by the European Commission ‘estimates that more than 40 percent of scientific peer reviewed articles published worldwide between 2004 and 2011 are now available online in open access form.’ (European Commission, 2013). There is also a growing emphasis on sharing data and ways to make them re–useable and citable (Royal Society, 2012). The accessibility and the reusability of research resources as well as the availability of an infrastructure to exchange research materials speeds up the research process (De Roure, et al., 2010; Hannay, 2009). A multitude of online tools can be used to share research materials and exchange knowledge (Lievrouw, 2010; Nentwich and König, 2011; Neylon and Wu, 2009; Procter, et al., 2010b). Scientists can connect with each other on a global scale via social networking sites or exchange knowledge on online platforms, collaboratively write scientific publications, share research materials such as papers, data or code in repositories, disseminate intermediate research insights or updates about current research on blogs and microblogs or in open lab notebooks. Greater transparency throughout the research process opens up opportunities to receive valuable feedback and increases chances for collaborations (Gowers and Nielsen, 2009; Nielsen, 2012). Open science can be seen as a mechanism of cumulative knowledge production whereby scientists draw upon knowledge derived at by ‘prior researchers’ and make their discoveries available to ‘future researchers’ (Mukherjee and Stern, 2009).

Opening up the scientific process and making its results accessible to a wider audience plays an important role in disseminating knowledge on a global scale and providing not only scientists but also interested individuals with an insight into the current state of knowledge production (Cribb and Hartomo, 2010; Grand, et al., 2012). The boundaries of science have blurred. ‘Science and society have both become transgressive; that is, each has invaded the other’s domain, and the lines demarcating the one from the other have all but disappeared.’ (Nowotny, et al., 2001).

There are open science initiatives in various areas of science that serve as positive examples of opening up the research process. In mathematics the Fields Medalist Timothy Gowers initiated a collaborative approach to solving a complex problem via a call for action on his blog (Gowers and Nielsen, 2009). In genetics the Human Genome Project and its successor ENCODE (http://www.genome.gov/10005107) made a significant contribution towards establishing the sharing of genetic sequences as the norm within the discipline. In disciplines such as physics, mathematics, and computer science it is common practice to upload papers onto the e–print repository arXiv (http://arxiv.org/). The Directory of Open Access Journals (http://doaj.org/) lists available open access journals. The Open Science Grid (http://www.opensciencegrid.org/) provides scientists with a distributed computing infrastructure (Pordes, et al., 2008). FigShare (http://figshare.com/) provides a platform for sharing research materials, including data, while scientists who work with code can share it on GitHub (https://github.com/). As a social networking site for scientists, ResearchGate (http://www.researchgate.net/) is an example of a platform that fosters the exchange between researchers.

On the surface it seems as though there are numerous open science initiatives. Many of them, however, fail to reach a critical mass (Procter, et al., 2010a) and end up being ‘virtual ghost towns’ (Nielsen, 2011b). There are not only benefits but also barriers and constraints to openness in research. When it comes to using digital technologies for scholarly communication the major barrier is the lack of benefits, combined with high costs of adoption and the lack of trust (Procter, et al., 2010a; RIN and NESTA, 2010). The willingness to publish work–in–progress as well as to share data decreases with a growing audience. Scientists are more likely to share within a trusted network or research community than on a publicly accessible Web site or blog. Time, credit, and personality as well as the discipline specific culture play an important role in determining attitudes towards sharing knowledge (Acord and Harley, 2013). Many scientists adhere to peer review as the most important, though admittedly imperfect, mechanism to ensure quality and scientific standards (Waldrop, 2008). Therefore some of them are reluctant to share their work in formats that have no formal quality stamp and that are not directly rewarded by the academic system (Procter, et al., 2010a). Even though there are efforts to measure scientists’ output on the Web (Priem and Hemminger, 2010) these activities are not officially taken into account when it comes to evaluating scientists’ work in terms of career progress. Traditional norms and incentives are still prevailing in the current academic system and are determining scientists’ inclinations towards the forms of sharing knowledge. Overall, sharing research materials is context dependent; scientists balance potential future reciprocity against the loss of competitiveness (Haeussler, 2011). There are many variations in sharing practices in open science that are shaped by ‘the diversity of scientific purposes, the technical nature of tasks, and the details of organizational structures.’