Quick followup on science blogging.

There’s a lot of great discussion going on at the moment about science blogging, the community of science, publishing and so on. I don’t have time for a comprehensive roundup (though Bora’s updates here cover most of it), but I want to quickly follow up on a comment that Abel Pharmboy made:

Bill Hooker was most vocal in Bora’s comments and in a separate post at his own Open Reading Frame on how “scoopers” should be shunned by the scientific community.

(This was sort of tangential to the main point of his post, which is why I’m doing this here instead of in his comments.)
The point I want to make is this: for all my talk of shunning, and for all that I’m absolutely serious about increasing the risk associated with “anti-collegial behaviour” like scooping, I’m aware that we don’t want to start a program of witch hunts. There will be grey areas, hard-to-prove cases, and we’ll just have to err on the side of trust — be scrupulous about “innocent until proven guilty”. Better ten scoopers get away with it than one innocent be labelled a scooper. We don’t have to catch ’em all, just associate a greater cost with the activity.
Further, it’s not so much about punishing wrongdoers as altering community attitudes. Scientists now tend to shrug and say, “that’s how the game is played” or some such — as though that’s how it HAD to be. Worse, people are not inclined to speak up and say, “Hey, I thought of that some time ago”, because the response will be along the lines of “too bad, I published it so it’s MINE ALL MINE bwahahaha!”. If someone says to me, “Hey look, here’s a blog post of mine outlining the central theme of your paper six months before you submitted it”, I’m not going to say “tough luck”. At the very least, I’m going to invite that person to work with me on questions we’re both interested in, so we can publish together in future — and more, I’d be happy to have my published work updated to give credit for their independent discovery. For one thing, how does it hurt me to admit that someone else also came up with “my” ideas? It amounts to a “note added in proof” if there are independent data involved, and a pretty ordinary courtesy if it’s just about the concepts. Further, I don’t WANT credit for something I didn’t do, only for things I did do (and I don’t even care so much about that, so long as interesting questions keep getting answered1). If someone else came up with an idea or a result before I did, I want that known — I’d feel like a fraud otherwise, if the community thought I was first but I knew otherwise.
In closing, let me just deal with one common objection to this idea of a more open system: that the world is full of assholes. Whenever I discuss openness, be it publishing data on blogs or being willing to share credit or listing one’s bioreagents on BioRoot, I meet with a reaction that boils down to “what if someone takes advantage of me?”. What if someone scoops me, what if someone fakes a blog post to get me to acknowledge them in a paper, what if someone keeps asking me for reagents and never gives any out? Well, to begin with it’s a lot healthier (and, I’d argue, more productive in the long term) to start with an assumption of good faith than with the idea that everyone is out to cheat you. It’s perfectly true that there will be assholes trying to take advantage, but here’s the thing: they’re doing that now, and the system we have is not hindering them much. In a more open system predicated on good faith interactions, assholery becomes harder to hide and get away with. As far as dealing with assholes as they appear, I return to a point from my last post: we’re scientists, we present and evaluate evidence for a living. So if I’m going to accuse someone of scooping, for instance, I know — it’s my job to know — what kind of evidence I need and how to get and present it. If I’m answering charges of assholery, I know what kind of evidence to demand, or to present in my defense. Give it a chance, I say: there aren’t as many assholes as you think, and we already know how to cope with them.

1 To the extent that I do care, it’s a job security issue: my ability to win funding and get or keep jobs in science is largely dependent on getting credit for my discoveries. That (job security) is a common lament among researchers, and it’s a function of the career structure/hierarchy, which is another problem for the community to deal with; for instance, there’s an interesting discussion here. For now, let me just point out that a system in which everyone gets the credit they’ve earned, because everyone is willing to give it (as in my personal thought-experiment above), seems to me to offer more security than a dog-eat-dog system.

One thought on “Quick followup on science blogging.

  1. I fully agree that a more open and transparent scientific process would be for the better. I am a bit tired of hearing people complaining that current practises are full of injustices without offering any alternatives. What I disagree with is that we should go ahead and try to change things starting with the assumption of good faith. There is a percentage of people with bad intentions, this is clear, so we should plan for this. Open systems like wikipedia and digg are having problems and are taking steps to solve them. I suggest we keep an eye on these pioneering online social systems and see what solutions they come up with.

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