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Home > Focus > René von Schomberg: Prospects of Institutionalizing the Research Values 'openness' and 'Collaboration'

René von Schomberg: Prospects of Institutionalizing the Research Values 'openness' and 'Collaboration'

by Jonathan Hankins [1], 16 December 2022

On November 30th 2022, René von Schomberg delivered an open lecture as part of the Cultures of Research series of the International Centre for Advanced Studies, Kaete Hamburger Kolleg, RWTH Aachen University [2] Cultures of Research series of the International Centre for Advanced Studies, Kaete Hamburger Kolleg, RWTH Aachen University. The focus was on Robert Merton's Ethos of Science, raising the question of whether the institution of science requires reformation or the formulation of a new ethos.

The following notes were taken during the lecture.

Robert K Merton's Ethos of Science

In 1942 one of the founders of what we now know as the sociology of science Robert K. Merton wrote The Normative Structure of Science [3], a short essay that included a section entitled The Ethos of Science, described by the author as 'that affectively toned complex of values and norms which is held to be binding on the man of science'.

Four sets of institutional imperatives - communism, universalism, disinterestedness and organized skepticism (CUDOS) - are taken to comprise the ethos of modern science, and it is the first (communism) that René von Schomberg takes to hand in his lecture.

Merton describes communism as the nontechnical and extended sense of common ownership of goods, with the findings of science a product of social collaboration and therefore assigned to the community, a common heritage. Readers who are familiar with von Schomberg's work might see echoes of his Open Science model in these words, in particular the concepts of openness and collaboration that are fundamental to this approach.

Von Schomberg focuses his lecture on the question of whether the institution of science requires reformation or the formulation of a new ethos, a form of openness that would provide the foundations for a new form of science. In addition to Merton's description (cited above) he adds that scientific pursuit is a functional imperative within which ethics and functionality coincide, raising the question of the very need for the institution of science in a system driven by priority. The question of whether the CUDOS norms are really functional has never been empirically answered, but von Schomberg wishes to demonstrate that this is not the case for the sub norms of the Mertonian norm Communism, namely 'responsiveness' and 'collaboration', which he sees as empirically demonstrable.

The Ethos of Science Revisited

Merton's ethos of science was characterized as follows: a non-codified explication of the lived ideas of the scientific community:

1 The Sharing of Scientific Discovery; based upon the public nature of science.
2 Non withholding of knowledge claims; openness is assumed as a sub-norm leading to knowledge sharing.
3 Relinquishing Intellectual Property Rights; a move towards recognition rather than ownership.

Von Schomberg finds functional advantages for following the institution of openness (which can also be seen as an ethical imperative for regulating the behaviour of scientists) but goes further in arguing that these norms are not exclusive to science but hold for all social structures, the same set of values running throughout.

Openness as a Virtue or Value versus a Moral Imperative

Responsiveness is required when adopting openness as a virtue or value ethic, but in a move beyond Merton, openness is seen as multidirectional (from both society and science), requiring collaboration and openness to knowledge actors which translates into prescriptive norms of mandatory answerability towards knowledge and truth claims regardless of whether they are made by scientist or non-scientists.

Cognitive versus Social Norms

The interaction between the cognitive Mertonian form (functional for the 'community' of scientists) and as social (for the social order of the institution of science) is complimentary. An argument for different forms of knowledge claims (from a social actor) versus scientific claims cannot be maintained (what is science and what is not science?): decades of post-mertonian work aimed at identifying demarcation criterion in order to distinguish scientific claims from knowledge claims made by non-scientist has been inconclusive.

Openness in science should mirror openness in society. The way issues are approached by science and by society involves different assumptions and framing. Scientists tend to frame issues in normative-problem definitions, which can either differ or overlap with citizens' framing of the same issue. Conflicts with science are conflicts about the framing of the problem, leading to the idea of the co-production of knowledge (with citizens) present in the open science framework, and through which consensus can be sought on contested problem-definitions.

Governance of the Institution of Science versus self-governance through the ethos of science

Science as an institution follows codes of research practice based on respect, accountability, honesty and reliability. These codes are traditionally focused on misconduct however. Self-regulation requires responsibility in the form of accountability from discovery to publication, while codification is driven by external pressure (be that societal or scientific).

Rewards and incentive systems have to focus on the institution rather than the scientific community. The system should not be dependent on an ethos of science, but requires a system of incentives that would allow scientific actors to 'do the right thing'.

Evaluating Researchers versus Evaluating Science

Scientific researchers currently find themselves under a great deal of pressure within an existing system that incentivizes researchers to publish as much as possible and preferably in high impact journals. This translates into a productivity paradox, since the more individual researchers become efficient in terms of publications, the less productive the system of science becomes in terms of both knowledge production and socially desirable outputs (as a result of lack of collaboration). The evaluation system should address the institution of science and not the community of researchers, and should be based on an evaluation of openness and collaboration (which should be rewarded). This would be of advantage as otherwise we would be dependent on the moral initiative or the ethos of scientists in a crisis situation.

Evaluations and the rewards and incentives system of the institution of science should focus on research behaviour rather than research outputs (such as publications) and should be qualitative in nature. Furthermore, a shift towards openness both in terms of knowledge sources and knowledge actors implies the need for knowledge and data sharing prior to publishing (rather than post-publishing).

A short von Schomberg authored essay on how such a system should look is downloadable here [4], with his blog [5] also offering insight into his thinking.


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Links in this document:

  1. 1] /schedabiografica/Jonathan Hankins
  2. 2] https://khk.rwth-aachen.de/
  3. 3] https://www.panarchy.org/merton/science.html
  4. 4] https://app.box.com/s/is84tskbzlausyt0zelloe5o2tuem365
  5. 5] https://renevonschomberg.wordpress.com/science-in-transition/)
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René von Schomberg: Prospects of Institutionalizing the Research Values 'openness' and 'Collaboration'
Articles by:  Jonathan Hankins
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