Steal like a(n Open) Scientist


Science is give and take

“After giving talks about open science I’ve sometimes been approached by skeptics who say, ‘Why would I help out my competitors by sharing ideas and data on these new websites? Isn’t that just inviting other people to steal my data, or to scoop me? Only someone naive could think this will ever be widespread.’ As things currently stand, there’s a lot of truth to this point of view. But it’s also important to understand its limits. What these skeptics forget is that they already freely share their ideas and discoveries, whenever they publish papers describing their own scientific work. They’re so stuck inside the citation-measurement-reward system for papers that they view it as a natural law, and forget that it’s socially constructed. It’s an agreement. And because it’s a social agreement, that agreement can be changed. All that’s needed for open science to succeed is for the sharing of scientific knowledge in new media to carry the same kind of cachet that papers do today” (Nielson 2011).

[T]he work of culture more generally may be seen as training towards letting (things) go. If culture is all about conveying things and skills to others…then learning to let go of things that others appropriately demand is a permanent process. Just as those from whom I have received skills and knowledge (and positions and objects and my life) had to let go of their possessions in the course of their lives, so will I have to learn to let go…” (Widlok 2016).

PLEASE NOTE: This is a draft of a bit of the Open Scientist Handbook. There are references/links to other parts of this work-in-progress that do not link here in this blog. Sorry. But you can also see what the Handbook will be offering soon. All comments are helpful!

In his book Steal like an Artist, Auston Kleon (2012) reminds artists that their lives have been surrounded by art, and that their “original” ideas have been informed in myriad ways by their exposure to this. Stealing is unavoidable, so do it right. Additionally, new art (including music) is always positioned inside of and/or away from the art preceding this. There is an abundance of influences to use, and a debt to all of them. Be bold and remix what you find, celebrate the old ideas in your new work. Don’t simply copy something and call it yours, but do study and learn from any source worth stealing. Investigate the meanings and potentials of what you find, and then transform these from those insights born of your personal onlyness (See: The Onlyness of the Career Open Scientist). Science is an art, with a similar relationship to its ideas. So your job is to learn how to steal like a scientist.

You are a scientist. You’re not agent 007. You are really more like agent C20H25N3O. But you do have a license. A license to steal. Come closer. Be honest. You are always on the lookout for ideas worth stealing. If the journal article you’re reading is not worth stealing, toss it away and keep looking. You are always looking. It’s called “research.” You hope your own team’s ideas are worth stealing. You make stealing these easy. It’s called “publication.” You are a professional thief. You keep careful track of the ideas you steal. You know where they are from. You’ve read the articles, you’ve read the articles they cited. You’ve read the articles from the citations in those articles. Life would be a lot easier if you could just spin up new ideas on your own. Science doesn’t work that way.

“We may consider sharing to be tolerated scrounging but for the scrounging to be tolerated it has to build on a number of recognized modes of action and interaction” (Widlok 2013).

“Saul Bellow, writing to a friend … said: ‘The name of the game is Give All. You are welcome to all my facts. You know them, I give them to you. If you have the strength to pick them up, take them with my blessing’” (Lethem 2007; Accessed July 20, 2020).

Stealing like a scientist in the open-science economy means you get to ask for and take what you need, in culturally specific ways. You take resources to use and reuse, to mine and remix. You pull knowledge from these, and add insights to them in the process. In hunter-gatherer societies (and sometimes in college dormitories), this is called “tolerated scrounging.” In the academy it’s more like “celebrated reuse.” Open-science research repositories make reuse quick and easy, and they are filled with ideas worth stealing. And, since these are “non-rivalrous” (See: Neylon 2016), an unlimited number of scientists can steal them. Better still, the more these ideas are stolen, the greater their value.

The culturally specific rules for stealing are being fashioned through the governance processes of scholarly commons (See: scholarly commons), as these are created to steward common pooled resources toward optimal use. The removal of patents for basic research (See: Hyde 2009; Barnett 2020), is one starting point. Fully public open-access publishing is another. Start somewhere and grow a culture of tolerated scrounging for the resources in your scholarly commons.

The responsibility is yours, the credit belongs to the whole scholarly club

[R]esearchers saw maintaining responsible conduct as the mandatory responsibility of every individual scientist. By choosing this card, the discussants assumed that science’s most important responsibility to society was to produce reliable knowledge. Research misconduct is then seen as the main threat to this practice…” (Sigl et al 2020).

When you gift (publish) a new scholarly work, you shoulder every responsibility for the rigor in your methods and any issues with your data. This is the first of several social responsibilities (such as mentoring others) you always carry, and one of the keystone virtues the academy has demanded for hundreds of years. Still, you are not the first nor the final author of your own findings. That authority is attached to a thousand places in the prior ideas of others, and in the work of more scientists yet to happen. You merely added one piece to an ongoing solution to the puzzle of nature (or society, etc.): to the “one long experiment” (Martin 1998) that is science. Time to get humble; but if intellectual humility doesn’t sound like you, you can claim hypo-egoic nonentitlement (Banker and Leary 2019) instead.

You own the event of discovery, not the piece of knowledge that was produced

Stealing like a scientist in an open gift economy also means everyone else gets to steal from you. When they steal like scientists, this makes you happy. It means your works are steal-worthy. You celebrate their reuse. In fact you need others to reuse your work to show its reproducibility. Your claim is that anyone would necessarily arrive at the very same insight you had, proving that this insight has a durable purchase on its object. If nobody can or does reuse your work, its value is unknown and even suspect.

What is harder to admit is the amount of luck, the confluence of good fortune that brought you to the event where you and your team acquired some new insight. Nobody gets to own serendipity. “Serendipity is a category used to describe discoveries that occur at the intersection of chance and wisdom” (Copeland 2019).

Riding on the back of the serendipity of reading what you did, talking with whom you have, and trying something new, you’ve exercised rigor and wonder and perseverance enough through your research to find that one distinct piece of the puzzle to apply it exactly where it fits. Now, you are expected to honor and celebrate the many contemporary and prior ideas that helped you and your team arrive at the singular event within which this new insight was born (See: Shaming the giant). By this, you also show that you belong to the elite club of science. And those who steal your ideas will honor and celebrate them in theirs.

Who can steal a gift? The expected answer is: nobody. The correct answer is: everyone.

As an open scientist, you have four jobs:

1.) produce ideas worth stealing, and;

2.) make these ideas as easy to steal as possible;

3.) steal as much from other scientists as you need, but steal like a scientist;

4.) become an active maintainer in your commons, to keep the stealing opportunities rich and rewarding for everyone.

As a member of a scholarly commons, you also have the duty to create normative cultural practices to optimize stealing going forward. Your list of “good stealing” practices will be fashioned to meet the needs of all the commoners in your community. Here’s a sample list:

Scientists know the difference

The Good Stealing practices involve care and attention to the provenance of what’s being stolen, and active credit for those who have made stealing possible. The Bad Stealing practices all point to a game of personal gain based on hiding the sources of your own learning. Good Stealing understands that stewarding the abundance of open resources is a long-term — longer than any lifetime — practice. Today, Bad Stealing practices — the hoarding, scooping, credit-grabbing kinds that are supported by the invented scarcity of ideas and the diminished value for generosity in science — flourish in the absence of social attention and alternative cultural norms. Tomorrow, when open science defines the norms for sharing, gifting, and celebrated reuse, Bad Stealing can be banished to the social margins, and ridiculed as needed.

Tolerated scrounging takes time and effort

On disinterestedness and serendipity: the freedom to discover and share in (open) science

“Disinterestedness: Scientists are motivated by the desire for knowledge and discovery, and not by the possibility of personal gain.
Self-Interestedness: Scientists compete with others in the same field for funding and recognition of their achievements” (Anderson, et al. 2007).

Let’s dig a little deeper into “celebrated reuse” and the history of science. The Mertonian norms of science include a notion of “disinterestedness.” At the time Merton was writing, this norm announced a basic freedom to pursue science without conflicts of interests, to shield basic science research from the motivations and (perverse) incentives that come with the marketplace, say, or with other external social/political/military desires. As Vannevar Bush (Accessed August 1, 2020) noted: “Scientific progress on a broad front results from the free play of free intellects, working on subjects of their own choice, in the manner dictated by their curiosity for exploration of the unknown.” Disinterestedness is also the culturally valued attitude of “letting go” when others build on your findings.

Disinterestedness was, and still is, the classic norm that frees you to let others in the academy club steal your work. The same lack of self interest that validates your independent research choice also validates you being able to let other people freely use your work. Disinterestedness is one of the social costs of academic freedom (you probably can’t have one without the other). It is the reason why the imbalance between responsibility (you have 100% of this) and authority (you have very little of this) makes perfect sense. You take the freedom to choose your research path in exchange for gifting the results back to the community; you release your personal interest in these results to benefit the whole scientific club.

If self-interest is your main incentive to do science, you are not doing open-science. Worse than that, you are doing science wrong. If you decide to wait until you have tenure to throw off self-interest (Anderson et al 2010), you are also doing it wrong. Certainly, we all have a stake in our own interests. Science expects us to care for these interests outside of our scientific explorations, and we need institutional reform and support to get there. But mainly, disinterestedness tells us to avoid conflicts with interests from outside the “republic of science” (Polanyi 1962).

Kindness and care still matter

“[M]uch of academic thinking brackets issues of emotions and values outside of academic understanding, even though emotions and values inhabit research and teaching by virtue of what we know, what we choose not to know, what we prioritise and what we trivialise” (Lynch and Ivancheva 2016).

Disinterestedness — that freedom to choose your own research subject and become passionate about exploring this — is not an alibi to ignore/resist other organizational cultural values for the academy, values that include kindness and care in academy workplaces and in relations with colleagues. (See: Kindness and care) You can start by bracketing out the perverse marketplace incentives that might warp your research path and diminish your own passion for the pursuit of science.

Passion is another part of science that is not peculiar to you. You are not the only person in the room or on your team that has been infected with the intellectual disease of science. This is a long-term global knowledge pandemic. Everyone gets to be infected — to be passionate — in their own way. (See: Six rules about passion). Exploring these passions through years of rigorous research effort builds a kind of shared practical wisdom inside the profession.

Applied practical wisdom: the practice of open science

The practical wisdom that underpins actually doing science removes the need for other incentives. The answer to the question: “How do you incentivize scientists to do research and teaching?” is simply this: “give them more opportunities to learn the practical wisdom required to do science” (See: The practical wisdom of science praxis).

Science requires/rewards its own unique practical wisdom. In addition to the practical wisdom one might (and perhaps should) acquire through social experiences with others (colleagues, family, strangers), doing science offers opportunities to acquire practical wisdom through a career experiencing nature as a complex emergent system.

For many years you learned from (and stole from) your teachers. Now, you encourage your students to scrounge new knowledge. Today, you steal like a scientist: information from your objects of study and insights from conversations with your colleagues. In tomorrow’s open-science culture, culturally-informed practices of Good Stealing will help you and your team and your organization optimize the use of the emergent scholarly commons infrastructure and content.

The work needed to articulate and support these practices will be significant. But know that the work needed to articulate and support Bad Stealing is/was just as arduous, except that so many academics have already learned how. Unlearning these toxic cultural practices will take time and reflection. Today, dozens of open-science platforms and communities are encouraging effective reuse. Reuse is one metric that deserves to become a goal (and one goal that makes a handy metric). How does your organization, your discipline, or your team celebrate active reuse? Where can it improve?

References

Anderson, Melissa S, Emily A. Ronning, Raymond De Vries, and Brian C. Martinson. “Extending the Mertonian Norms: Scientists’ Subscription to Norms of Research.” The Journal of Higher Education 81, no. 3 (2010): 366–93. https://doi.org/10.1353/jhe.0.0095.

Anderson, Melissa S., Brian C. Martinson, and Raymond De Vries. “Normative Dissonance in Science: Results from a National Survey of U.S. Scientists.” Journal of Empirical Research on Human Research Ethics 2, no. 4 (December 2007): 3–14. https://doi.org/10.1525/jer.2007.2.4.3.

Banker, Chloe C, and Mark R Leary. “Hypo-Egoic Nonentitlement as a Feature of Humility.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 2019, 0146167219875144.

Copeland, Samantha. “On Serendipity in Science: Discovery at the Intersection of Chance and Wisdom.” Synthese 196, no. 6 (June 2019): 2385–2406. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-017-1544-3.

Hyde, Lewis. The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World. Vintage, 2009.

Kleon, Austin. Steal like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You about Being Creative. New York: Workman Pub. Co, 2012.

Lynch, K, and M Ivancheva. “Academic Freedom and the Commercialisation of Universities: A Critical Ethical Analysis.” Ethics in Science and Environmental Politics 15, no. 1 (March 31, 2016): 71–85. https://doi.org/10.3354/esep00160.

Martin, Ronald E. One Long Experiment: Scale and Process in Earth History. Columbia University Press, 1998.

Nielsen, M. Reinventing Discovery: The New Era of Networked Science. Princeton University Press, 2011.

Polanyi, M. “The Republic of Science: Its Political and Economic Theory.” Minerva 1 (1962): 54–73.

Sigl, Lisa, Ulrike Felt, and Maximilian Fochler. “‘I Am Primarily Paid for Publishing…’: The Narrative Framing of Societal Responsibilities in Academic Life Science Research.” Science and Engineering Ethics 26, no. 3 (June 2020): 1569–93. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11948-020-00191-8.

Widlok, T. Anthropology and the Economy of Sharing. Routledge, 2016.

— — — . “Sharing: Allowing Others to Take What Is Valued.” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 3, no. 2 (2013): 11–31.

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