David Dobbs has a link roundup and commentary on what’s been going down with l’affaire Hauser. It doesn’t look good for Hauser et al., though it seems that the downfall was precipitated ultimately from within if press reports are to be believed. Part of the issue here seems to be that there’s a level of opacity in the scientific process, and you have to trust the scientists themselves over the short term. Over the long term the system of science and its general culture tends to self-correct, at least in the natural sciences, but over the long term careers can rise and fall, and science is produced by human beings. We know that science is possible, it’s been done for at least a few centuries even with the most constrained definitions, but we also know that it isn’t necessarily entailed by the existence of any complex society. A particular set of contingent conditions need to come together to allow for its emergence and perpetuation. So it’s all fine and good to observe that science as a system self-corrects, but without the individual incentives and institutional checks & balances it may never have a chance to flower.
This brings me to Dobbs’ comment about more “open science”:
One worry about more open review — which I can relate to as a journalist — is that one’s ideas get opened up and spread around before publication. This raises worries about ownership and priority and credit, worries that are reasonable, or at least hard to resist, in a culture that especially prizes and rewards these things, and which bases tenure, not to mention fame and prestige and all the accompanying goodies, on breaking the big theory or story. Science in that way closely parallels journalism.
Others argue that our emphasis on individual credit overlooks the collaborative nature of science to start with, and that a more honest approach (in a couple sense of the term) is to share data far earlier in the process. Such open science, the argument goes, would a) let many eyes mine the data so we get more out of it, b) reduce duplication of efforts, and c) serve as a constant check against everything from misreading data to fabricating it.
As the production and transmission of information becomes more “transparent” due to the nature of communication technology I wonder if concerns about ownership will abate, simply because transparency will allow for better reconstruction of the chain of creation and so implied ownership. This may not suffice for patents, but when it comes to scientific glory where reputation and not money is at stake, it may be good enough.