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

Published on March 30, 2013 by Dr. Randal S. Olson

arsenic life call-out career damage donglegate open science

4 min READ

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.

[caption id="attachment_962" align="aligncenter" width="300"]The Tweet that sparked the #DongleGate controversy The Tweet that was heard around the Internet
(Image thanks to @adriarichards/Twitter)[/caption]

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.

[caption id="attachment_956" align="aligncenter" width="500"]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)[/caption]

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.

[caption id="attachment_959" align="aligncenter" width="600"]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)[/caption]

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.