Don’t Blame Open Science for Scooping

(August 17th, 2017) Open science is becoming more and more prevalent. Critics, however, think this approach makes it easier to steal somebody else’s ideas. A new study explores how some researchers not only do not fear open science but, in fact, welcome it as a way to fight illegitimate scooping.





Novelty is vital for every scientist. New methods to use, new areas to explore, new questions to ask… For better or for worse, this is how careers progress in the scientific community. Without new ideas, scientists will soon find themselves at the bottom of the pecking order. This often leads to some reluctance towards sharing views and open science is fiercely avoided by some. “Researchers fear that their work will lose value if someone publishes on it first,” says Heide Laine from the University of Helsinki. In addition, there’s the fear of embarrassment. “Researchers don't want to expose work, which might still be taking shape, to ridicule and critique.”

For the researcher, the worrying part is that many blame open science for scooping but that is not necessarily true. “Fears of having your work made irrelevant by scooping and/or getting laughed at have very little evidence to back them up, as far as Open Science is concerned. I'm sure there are plenty of valid and stressful experiences of scooping out there but none that I have come across have resulted from open sharing.”

To assess how the views of researchers, who already embrace Open Science, differ from the rest, Laine spoke to four researchers from two very different projects operating in Finland. The first one – Somus – was a two-year multidisciplinary social project, studying the dynamics of information, knowledge and citizenship in an open and participative media environment. Every step of the process was done in collaboration, including a funding application written online with input from different groups. The second – NMR Lipids Project – is an on-going project looking at the atomic resolution of lipid bilayers. The project’s outcomes can be seen in their blog and anyone is free to join and become a co-author.

“The two groups operated in very different disciplinary fields and, to a degree, also different eras. Somus ended in 2010 when the open data and open science discussions were still rather marginal, at least in Finland. NMRLP is more recent and has been able to profit from the example of other experiments, namely the Polymath Project, and from the surge of online tools and services, such as Github and Zenodo,” explains Laine.

Perhaps due to these factors, Laine detected important differences between the groups. “Somus researchers, who operated in the social science world, didn't have high regard for ideas and research questions. They considered ideas as ownerless and often more important than the idea, is where you go with it,” explains the researcher. In contrast, “in natural sciences results are more exact and there is lot less interpretation involved. Ideas matter more. Innovative research questions can already be half of the discovery. Numeric data is apersonal, in the sense that it's harder to trace back to its creator than, say, prose text.”

This meant NMRLP researchers were much more concerned about somebody stealing their ideas. However, instead of shying away from openly sharing their data, these researchers took the novel approach of being out in the open as a way to get rid of stress. “An idea theft that happens over a coffee break, during meeting with a supervisor or sharing data with a closed group can be difficult to prove. Making it open creates a digital track record that can be used to prove priority if necessary,” says Laine.

For the researcher, this is another reason to support open science, and she suggested “introducing more research ethics, history of science and philosophy of science into researcher training, especially in the fields on natural science and engineering science” as a way to promote it. “Researchers need to understand that their work is dependent on public support for science, which is a scarce resource and needs constant nurture,” Laine continued.

Hard to believe for some but it is indeed possible to see open science as a way to prevent scooping. “The idea that publishing your idea early makes it easy to prove priority is a widely-used argument in favour of open science. Open science is responsible science,” concludes Laine. 

Alex Reis

Photo: Pixabay/OpenClipart-Vectors




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