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Home > Focus > 'It feels like the right thing to do': ethical perspectives of open science

'It feels like the right thing to do': ethical perspectives of open science

by Ann Grand [1], 24 May 2012

by Ann Grand [2].

Open science, an approach in which the entirety of an investigation - questions, raw data, methodologies, results, models, published outputs and more - is made available online, is a practice followed by a growing number of projects. Developed partly as a practical means to support multi-site and multi-national collaborations, it also embodies a philosophical approach to the conduct of science.

Since open science projects are disseminated via the Internet, members of the public are able to access and download material from the projects and potentially, interact and collaborate with professional researchers. For the past three years, I have been conducting doctoral research looking at ways in which open science could potentially support public access to and involvement in the processes of science.

When talking to researchers who had chosen to work in an open manner, one of the obvious questions for me to ask was why they chose to do so. I also asked researchers working in a more traditional way, and members of the public, what they thought the advantages of working openly might be. One theme that emerged strongly was that it represents an ethical way to conduct science.

Open science can, my research suggests, support ethical practice in three senses: first, that it is ethical in itself - as one of the researchers commented 'it feels ethical; it feels like the right thing to do'; second, that it is a way of offering evidence that research is being conducted in an ethical way; third, that it allows researchers to meet the commitments they have made to be open about their research.

Governments around the world have committed themselves to making data freely and widely available to their populations. Open Data initiatives exist in the USA, UK, Australia, New Zealand, Norway, Italy and many other countries. Such initiatives mean that the opportunity to comment on and challenge science is a growing feature of the relationship between science and public groups.

Information-sharing among researchers has long been considered critical to progress in all areas of academic study; indeed, to be a quality that distinguishes research effort from work in other areas. Funding bodies that invest taxpayers' money, such as Research Councils UK [3], European Union Framework 7 [4] and the US National Science Foundation [5] are increasingly more serious about taking responsibility for making the outputs of publicly-funded research more widely - indeed publicly - available.

Researchers funded by such bodies - and even by private trusts such as the Wellcome Trust [6] (UK) - are increasingly being asked to commit to making the results of their research openly accessible. Practising open science is thus ethical in the sense of supporting scientists to meet commitments to which they have agreed. Indeed, it goes beyond the commitment to making the results of their research openly available, by making the entire research process open to examination.

Open science also allows members of the public and other researchers to verify that research is being conducted in an ethical way. Being open throughout the process allows observers readily to scrutinise the research questions and methodology and to compare raw data outputs with organised published outputs.

My research suggests that practising open science can also be ethical in the first sense; that it is the 'right thing to do'. Researchers express a personal sense of obligation and acknowledge a direct link between themselves and the public that is paying for their research; recognising that receiving public funds obliges them to be accountable and responsible. For such researchers - and for members of the public - practising open science supports engagement by providing a full sense of the context in which research is being conducted. Open science, potentially, offers a complete picture, rather than one in which the 'good' results are shown and the 'inconvenient' ones left out. Understandably, researchers are likely to be less willing to discuss failure that success but, as one interviewee (a member of the public) suggested to me: 'knowing things that don't work out is just as important as knowing those that do'. When knowing what doesn't work feeds into political and policy decisions, the openness and transparency offered by open science can support the dialogue and discussion needed for understanding the wider implications of issues in current science and technology. 

Of course, such a transformation in the way science is conducted will inevitably create difficulties and raise issues that must be considered. For some, the desire for openness creates conflicts with commercial imperatives and with researchers' needs to verify ownership and priority. Against this argument, participants in my research suggested that in what has been called a 'knowledge economy', taking an open approach extends the benefits of research as widely as possible and thus sustains a greater commercial advantage.

The quality and veracity of the information made available by open science is also an issue. Information that flows immediately and directly from apparatus or researcher may be complete, fresh and unmodified but it may also be raw and unchecked. At an early stage, researchers may not have had the opportunity to reflect on the results and to articulate their conclusions. Thus, the information may lack the imprimateur offered by peer review, university origin, journal reputation or organisational reliability. Several authors have suggested that using the Internet as an information source means users must develop the skills that will enable them to judge the quality of that information. Participants in my research further indicated that simply making information available through open science is not the same as making it accessible. They suggested that there needs to be mediation of and commentary on the information and that researchers will need to consider carefully how they can annotate data to enhance its usability and comprehensibility to people outside the project.

Different scientific disciplines have different practices regarding the privacy of information; what is acceptable to high-energy physics may not be acceptable in medical research. Such differing practices can reveal inconsistencies when multi-disciplinary groups work together. Practising open science inevitably involves opening up research to public audiences but it can be a harsh spotlight under which to work, potentially exposing researchers to criticism and pillorying. However, some participants in my research have found the communities that can develop around an open project to be supportive and creative. Openness enables a wider audience to scrutinise work closely and carefully and supports interactivity and dialogue among members of the community be they professional researcher or private individuals.

Adopting an open science approach will not be without difficulties, worries and complexities. However, adopting such an approach and using it to capture a transparent and authentic record of the research process can support science's long-established interest in high-quality research, truthfulness, honesty, validity and repeatability - and ethicality.

Open science projects:
The Polymath Project [7]
Detection of Archaeological Residues using remote-sensing Techniques [8] (DART)
MathOverflow [9]
iSpot [10]
The Emergence of Artificial Culture in Robot Societies [11]
The Open Science Project [12]
The Open Dinosaur Project [13]
Innocentive [14]
Open Innovation [15]

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Links in this document:

  1. 1] /schedabiografica/Ann Grand
  2. 2] http://www1.uwe.ac.uk/research/sciencecommunicationunit/staffandstudents/anngrand.aspx
  3. 3] http://www.rcuk.ac.uk/research/Pages/outputs.aspx
  4. 4] http://www.openaire.eu/en/open-access/open-access-in-fp7
  5. 5] http://www.nsf.gov/nsb/publications/pub_summ.jsp?ods_key=nsb00106
  6. 6] http://www.wellcome.ac.uk/About-us/Policy/Policy-and-position-statements/WTD002766.htm
  7. 7] http://polymathprojects.org/
  8. 8] http://dartproject.info/WPBlog/
  9. 9] http://mathoverflow.net/
  10. 10] http://www.ispot.org.uk/
  11. 11] http://sites.google.com/site/artcultproject/
  12. 12] http://www.openscience.org/blog/
  13. 13] http://opendino.wordpress.com/about/
  14. 14] http://www.innocentive.com/
  15. 15] http://openinnovationproject.co.uk/dev/index.php/home
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Ann Grand - cc - photo by tomcorsan
Articles by:  Ann Grand
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