Is the Open Science movement prone to call-outs, and is that a good thing?

I had a discussion with a couple scientists this week who are critical of the Open Science movement. Among the usual counter-arguments, one argument stuck out to me as particularly thought-provoking:

(paraphrased) Open Science is prone to call-outs, and that can be unnecessarily damaging to scientist’s careers.

In light of the recent #DongleGate travesty, we’ve seen how damaging public call-outs can be to the careers of everyone involved. No one wants to be affiliated with a person who is actively protested against on the Internet. It’s bad for publicity, and therefore it’s bad for business.

The Tweet that sparked the #DongleGate controversy

The Tweet that was heard around the Internet
(Image thanks to @adriarichards/Twitter)

Call-outs in science

Not too long ago, the scientific community had its own DongleGate with the #ArsenicLife controversy (overviewed by Jonathan Eisen here, which summarizes summaries by other people who summarized the issue — yeah, it was a big thing). In the beginning, Wolfe-Simon et al. published a controversial paper in Science. Some scientists disagreed with the findings, and pursued an ideal Open Science approach to science and posted their critiques on arXiv and via social media outlets. And as Jonathan Eisen puts it, “the critiques snowballed and snowballed” and “some of the critiques got way too personal.” In the end, scientific truth won out and Wolfe-Simon et al.’s work was proven flawed. But at what cost?

In traditional scientific venues, controversy is a way of life. For about every stance you can take in science, you can be guaranteed that there will be someone who disagrees with you. Thus, whenever controversy arises, it’s just another day in science: we look at the issue, deliberate the data presented, decide whether the data is convincing, and identify future experiments if we find the data unconvincing. And here’s the most important step after all that is done: we move on with our lives.

Controversy can easily snowball when news and social media gets involved

Controversy can easily snowball when news and social media gets involved
(Image thanks to Kamyar Adl)

News and social media venues don’t work that way. Both of these venues actively seek controversy and thrive off of it. The more people that get involved, the more successful the blog posts and news articles are, and the more blog posts and news articles are created to feed off of the controversy. As we saw with the #ArsenicLife controversy, news and social media bloated the #ArsenicLife debate to national proportions and kept the controversy on everyone’s minds every day until the issue was finally settled.

What costs would we pay for Open Science?

A colleague of mine related a story of how Rosie Redfield, one of the fiercest critics of the arsenic life work, gave a talk at the Evolution Ottawa 2012 Conference. Rosie basically outlined how the #ArsenicLife controversy proceeded, and further dragged Felisa’s name in the mud in front of the massive audience who eagerly listened to Rosie’s story. All to the uproarious applause of the audience, as Rosie was touted as the ideal Open Scientist. And understandably so: she had done great work leading the charge in the #ArsenicLife controversy.

I met Felisa at the Gordon Research Conference on the Origin of Life in 2012, and I don’t think I’ve ever met someone who was so visibly stressed out from their work. If you’ve followed up on what happened after the #ArsenicLife controversy, you’ll know that Felisa was “effectively evicted” from her position at the USGS laboratory and forced to find a new home for her research, all because of the fuss raised in the name of Open Science. She’s still an early career scientist, yet her career is marred by the #ArsenicLife controversy for the rest of her life.

The desire to be open in science can potentially harm people

The desire to be open in science can potentially harm people (pictured: Felisa Wolfe-Simon)
(Image thanks to NASA)

With that in mind, ask yourself: Is expedient scientific truth worth damaging people’s careers? Disrupting their livelihood?

If the #ArsenicLife controversy is any indication, news and social media venues are not ready to handle scientific controversy properly. If we open scientific debate to everyone, the conversation won’t just be limited to scientists. Do we really want a repeat of #ArsenicLife?

Let’s think things through before we get caught up in idealistic visions

It’s easy to get caught up in the Open Science notion of “being a good scientist.”

It makes sense.

It sounds right.

It feels right, on an instinctual level.

All I’m asking is for us to seriously consider both sides of the coin–both the professional and the personal implications–before we change the way we do science.

Dr. Randy Olson is a Senior Data Scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, where he develops state-of-the-art machine learning algorithms with a focus on biomedical applications.

Posted in open science, philosophy Tagged with: , , , , ,
  • David Sanders

    You have completely misrepresented the #Arseniclife affair. It wasn’t a “controversial paper.” It was a bad paper whose text did not reflect the data. The media attention was sought after by Wolfe-Simon and Paul Davies even before the outrageous press conference. The Science article authors have each displayed irresponsible behavior throughout the process. It’s a fantastic illustration of “pathological science” and should be recognized as such.

  • I don’t understand how this is an argument against open science. You can’t silence the media, if scientists are blogging and open then at least they can shape and somehow inform the media. You will always have controversies, it is just if more scientists are familiar with social media then there is hope that the controversy won’t be fueled only by science journalists and laymen, but also will reflect the views of scientists.

    • Yeah, what I mentioned above hasn’t swayed me away from open science, but perhaps it should be thought of as a cautionary tale. Practicing open science doesn’t have 100% positive impacts, and can in fact have some deeply negative impacts if practiced improperly.

  • Funny how people can have such different impressions…

    After my initial blog post*, I thought my blogging had been very circumspect, critiquing the science but not the scientists behind the arseniclife debacle.

    The Evolution 2012 talk was about how science is done and communicated. I ended it with a ‘cascade of fail’ slide that, I think, evenly distributed the responsibility between Dr. Wolfe-Simon, her advisor, her co-authors, her reviewers, the journal Science and NASA’s publicity machine. The only points where I remember specifically criticizing her were in the question period, when I said that she had made the big mistake of falling so in love with her hypothesis that she couldn’t see the flaws in her data, and the bigger mistake of being unable to admit that she had made mistakes. But I also said that these are challenge shared by all scientists.

    Her name is indeed a bit muddy, but I don’t think the responsibility lies with me.

    * where I wondered whether the unknown-to-me authors of the arseniclife paper might be bad scientists or just swept up by NASA’s hype

    • Hi Rosie! Thanks for commenting on this post. 🙂

      Her name is indeed a bit muddy, but I don’t think the responsibility lies with me.

      I didn’t mean to imply that Felisa’s muddied name was solely or mostly your doing; it was a collective effort of everyone who was involved in the social media hype of the #ArsenicLife controversy. And that’s the danger, I think, of social media: it’s extremely easy to get caught up in the hype, especially when spreading the hype is just a Retweet button away. We forget that controversy is a part of our daily lives as scientists, and it’s no reason to get out the pitchforks and start setting scientists ablaze. (Figuratively, of course… I hope! :-))

      she had made the big mistake of falling so in love with her hypothesis that she couldn’t see the flaws in her data, and the bigger mistake of being unable to admit that she had made mistakes.

      I agree that the above is the big lesson to learn from #ArsenicLife. My hope is that we can communicate this message without further unnecessarily (imo) muddying Felisa and her colleague’s names.

  • And yes, I do think that, in science, the truth is more important than anything else, even people’s careers and livelihoods.

    • What about expedient truth? Is getting the truth out there a few months earlier via social media worth damaging people’s careers/livelihoods? That’s what I fear: we begin to value “finding the truth, now” over other human beings.