closed science

In its most extreme form, closed science is unpublished scientific research, available only to the researcher and a select few others: in previous centuries, this may have been a patron. Such unpublished science is ungenerous at best and dangerous at worst. It is ungenerous when it deprives other researchers and therefore society of the benefit of the latest findings; dangerous when it results in flawed policy decisions made without the benefit of full scrutiny or debate.

In most cases these days, however, closed science involves publishing proprietary, often corporately funded, research in pay-per-use journals. Some argue that private enterprise fosters innovation, taking scientific endeavors in new directions and leading to breakthroughs that would not happen without market forces. This may or may not be true. In any case, it can be argued that private funders can make their own decisions about where their research findings are published. Certainly, patent rights and intellectual property rights make this a murky area. Some open science advocates, such as Paul A. David, argue that harm is done by withholding access regardless of the funding agency:

High access charges imposed by holders of monopoly rights in intellectual property have overall consequences for the conduct of science that are particularly damaging to programs of exploratory research that are recognized to be vital for the long–term progress of knowledge–driven economies. (“Economic Logic of Open Science”)

Setting aside this question, closed science is clearly problematic when the results of publicly funded research are unavailable to that very same public except through pay-per-use journals. In this case, the public pays twice: first by spending tax dollars to fund the research in the form of a government grant or similar; and second by paying, usually through university library subscriptions, to access the results of that very same research. There have been various outcries against this practice in recent years; one example is a boycott started in 2012 against the publisher Elsevier; the boycott’s accompanying petition has been signed by more than 13,000 scientists to date.

Even when the results of scientific research are freely available, problems arise when insufficient details are provided regarding the research methodology or the findings themselves. Without transparency, other researchers are unable to properly assess the findings.

Neylon and Wu remind us, however, that “there will always be places where complete openness is not appropriate – for example, where personal patient records may be identifiable or where research is likely to lead to patentable results.” The Human Genome Project, for instance, is an example of scientific endeavour that raises the question of what should be public and what should be kept private.

Open science and closed science are not binary concepts. A single research project may be open in some ways but closed in others. This means that the compelling arguments in favour of data privacy, in some cases, need not sway us from the overall goals of open science.

Read more:

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References

Cost of Knowledge. “The Cost of Knowledge.” Retrieved June 10, 2013.

David, Paul A. “The economic logic of open science and the balance between private property rights and the public domain in scientific data and information: a primer.” The role of scientific and technical data and information in the public domain: Proceedings of a symposium. Basic Books, 2003.

David, Paul A.“The historical origins of ‘open science’” working paper, Stanford University, Economics Dept. June, 2007.

Eisenberg, Rebecca S., and Richard R. Nelson. “Public vs. proprietary science: a fruitful tension?” Academic Medicine 77.12, Part 2 (2002): 1392-1399. Web.

Flood, Alison. “Scientists sign petition to boycott academic publisher Elsevier.” Guardian. 2 Feb. 2012. Web.

Neylon, Cameron, and Shirley Wu. “Open Science: tools, approaches, and implications.” Pacific symposium on biocomputing. Vol. 14. 2009.

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6 thoughts on “closed science

  1. Pingback: What is open science? Open access. | minimum in cursive

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