The Trouble with Working Against Convention

In a recent lab meeting, my current PI Rachel Dutton casually said something, almost as an aside, that nearly knocked me out of my seat. She'd been thinking about opening up the lab revealing what we're doing before we formally publish it. I was shocked not because I think it's a bad idea, but because I think it's a great one. It's just that I haven't met many scientists that agree with me.

Opening Up

I've been an advocate for open science for quite a while. Beyond open access science journals, I believe that labs doing scientific research should publish their results as freely and widely as possible, in real time if they can. My most extensive critique of the current model of publishing and possible alternatives is here:

"In my idyllic world, every lab has their own blog, and publishes their results in real time, sharing them on a site like ResearchGate. Individual figures can be indexed on something like FigShare. Scientists can post their negative or confusing data and ask the entire world for help, or talk about their research plans and get critiqued."

So basically, exactly what Rachel was proposing to do. And let me be clear up front - I get no credit for this idea, she came to it independently. I've shied away from talking about these ideas directly with people, particularly those higher up in their career, for fear of being regarded with a weary eye. As I previously wrote:

"These days, there’s an entire industry of academic publishers that have become so fully integrated into the research system that many scientists don’t realize that there’s any distinction between doing science and publishing in journals[...]

The modern link between the publication of science in journals, the funding of science based on publication record, and what publications mean for your scientific reputation means that when I talk to my colleagues, most don’t really accept that there’s any other way it can be done. Doing science means publishing in journals. Full stop."

But now I'm in a somewhat awkward position. I've thought long and hard about this subject, and I've decided that wherever possible, I will work by these principals. I believe the benefits, both for myself and for the wider project of scientific research in general, are clear.

Then again, the career I want is not so dependent on the current system. I want to do research at a small liberal arts college, where the pace and expectations of research output are different. There are real risks to trying to launch a research-based academic career while being open. So now, I feel like I need to voice the risks and downside that I know are inherent in the quest. I care about openness, but I care more about Rachel and her career. So what are the downsides of openness?

The Perils of Open

The knee-jerk reaction of a lot of people is "getting scooped." Essentially, if someone knows what you're working on and manages to publish it before you do, they'll get the credit and you'll get none. Frankly, I don't really buy this argument much - there's plenty of science to be done, and I think most scientists are more likely to reach out for collaborations if you're working on similar projects than to maliciously try to scoop you. There's so much researcher time wasted on projects that others are further along on because everyone's being so secretive. There may be a few exceptions, but my impression of scientists is that they'd rather help out people with mutual interests.

A far bigger concern to my mind is publication. Like it or not, publications in peer-reviewed journals are the coin of the realm, and publishing data on your own website might prevent you from publishing it later in a journal. Some journals have policies that permit "preprints" to places like, but the policies on publishing on your own blog are unclear. For example, Nature Publishing Group (parent company of SciAm, where I also blog) says:

"Neither conference presentations nor posting on recognized preprint servers constitute prior publication"

But what does "recognized preprint servers" mean? I doubt my personal blog would qualify, even though the medium may serve a similar purpose. What about FigShare - do they count as "recognized?"

Journals of the American Society for Microbiology are less ambiguous, but far more harsh:

"In brief, a paper is not acceptable for submission to an ASM journal if it, or its substance, has been made publicly available in: A serial, periodical, or book; A conference report or symposium proceedings; A technical bulletin or company white paper; A public website; Any other retrievable source"

+1 for clarity, -100 for policy. 

All this means that being open with respect to your data and research puts your publication prospects at risk. Since publications in high profile journals are required for grants, promotion and tenure - basically everything an academic scientist needs to have a successful career. 

And all of these decisions affect hiring - getting the best scientists to work in your lab. The head of a lab does very little research of their own, the job is mostly managing other scientists, who have their own careers to think about. It doesn't matter if you're 100% convinced that openness is the right way to go, if you can't convince postdocs and grad students to join your lab, you won't have anything to be open about. 

Related to this is collaboration - very few labs do work entirely on their own, most require working with others who may not share your vision of openness. I suspect that you will find more collaborators than you lose, but some may not be willing to have their own research projects exposed (or even potentially exposed) by your decision to be open.

Open or Not Open?

This may not be the right question, perhaps a better question is "how open?" One can talk about research in progress without showing actual data, or hold back just the data that might eventually make it into a paper. One can commit to publishing only in journals that are open access, or allow pre-print submission. One can give individuals within their lab the option of being open or not.

Ultimately, I'm hoping for a world in which the traditional economy of scientific journals is torn down, and an economy of knowledge is built up, but you can't just decide a different economy is better without getting buy-in from your peers. Hopefully, some baby-steps can be taken in a positive direction by individuals that care about openness, without sacrificing too much of their careers on the alter of principal.