Finding virtue in open science? Biological scientists' constructions of openness in historical, advocacy and policy contexts
Science has a special relationship with the term “open” and its connotations. A traditional story about scientific openness goes as follows: if scientists share their findings, scientific communities can collectively build upon these findings and a progressive corpus of knowledge emerges. But since the turn of the twenty-first century, a distinctive, online “open science” has rapidly gained global salience, incorporating practices from open access publishing and open research data, to open preprints, open peer review, and open notebook science. Movements towards such practices have often been led from within scientific communities – by scientist-activists and entrepreneurs. Such actors see the Internet as an unprecedented opportunity to “open” science, and fix seemingly broken aspects of the scientific system: inaccessibility, opacity, irreproducibility. More recently, the “open” imperative is also top-down, as funding and research organisations increasingly treat open practices as desirable or mandatory. This work focuses on academic, biological scientists in the UK and Australia whose professional and epistemic worlds are undergoing transformation in this open science “revolution” – in whose communities openness may have long-standing meaning, but wherein “open science” may have risen from obscurity to salience in the space of only 15 or 20 years. While some scientists are the leaders of open movements, many are said to be ambivalent and slow to adopt open practices, forming a “cultural” barrier to openness that is rarely explored in systematic empirical studies. This disparity has a moral dimension, as openness is positioned a quality of good science and scientists. My research questions consider how scientists’ constructions sit in relation to historical, advocacy and policy framings; why scientists may be disengaged from contemporary open science movements; and the extent to which they construct and internalise openness as an epistemic virtue: a moralised truth-making quality. The thesis begins with an analysis of openness in science as a concept and practice with historical depth as well as contemporary salience; I then explore its contemporary framing in advocacy and policy contexts through document analysis. In both I consider how “open” (or “openness”) is being constructed, and the significance of its flexibility and expansiveness. These analyses set the scene for the empirical core of the work: 40 in-depth, semi-structured interviews with biologists, purposively sampled for disciplinary, generational, gender, and attitudinal diversity. For context and counterpoint, I conducted 14 similar interviews with open science advocates and policymakers. Through these interviews, I attend to how a broad population of scientists, as well as advocates and policymakers, construct “open” in science. My findings focus on the three most common categories of scientific openness emerging from interviews with biologists: open access, data openness, and interpersonal openness. The first two of these have close connections with policy and advocacy movements, whereas the third appears to be anchored only in scientists’ experiences and implicit conceptualisations. Nonetheless, interpersonal openness is constructed in consistent ways and with conviction: it refers to the practice and principle of “talking freely” about unpublished ideas and data in small-scale interpersonal situations, or the contextual withholding of such information. I characterise scientists’ constructions of each of these three categories as indicators of how scientists encounter and enact top-down and bottom-up forms of scientific openness. In my discussion and conclusion, I bring these three categories of scientific openness into conversation, using them to theorise the variety of relationships that scientists form with scientific openness under the contemporary open science “revolution” - including whether and how different forms of openness are internalised as epistemic virtues. In turn, this allows commentary about: the apparent disconnectedness of scientists from certain agendas of openness; the significance of generational differences; and interactions between openness, privilege and inequality in pressured scientific systems.