On the flip side of openness

In Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody, he says, “Revolution doesn’t happen when society adopts new technologies – it happens when society adopts new behaviors.” His point is that while new technology is necessary for revolution, it is far from sufficient. The real shift occurs once the technology permeates society enough so that new behaviors come naturally. For Shirky, the revolution that is the social web came only after commoditization of the Internet and mobile messaging made connecting people on a global scale effortless and natural.

For proponents of nascent movements like open science, it is common to wonder why others can’t just change what they think or what they’re doing. We changed, after all. If only the incentive structure were different, we say, or if people could just understand why openness is better. If things would just change – why, we’d enter a golden age of science!

But changing people is difficult, and changing society even more so. While there can be immediately compelling reasons to change – skyrocketing gas prices, for example – broader, long-reaching change arises almost unconsciously. More importantly, it depends on the enabling technology becoming so familiar that the natural behavior is to use that technology.

For open science, there are clearly two sides to the coin. There is openness as a social construct – the willingness to be open – and there is openness as a technological construct – the ability to be open. Although some bold souls may embrace the former without clear demonstration of the latter, most people aren’t even aware that there is something to embrace. And without mature, ubiquitous technology, pleas to participate will go mostly unheeded.

Yes, some of the tools for making science more open are available. But, technologically speaking, we are still a long way from integrating them ubiquitously into the research process. Until we do, we cannot expect many scientists to go open. But as the technology improves, more scientists will go online to read papers, manage citations, and share files and write manuscripts with collaborators. And as more scientists go online to conduct aspects of their research, the technology will improve. When scientists can no longer imagine a better way to do science, we’ll know we have arrived.


3 Responses to On the flip side of openness

  1. gregorylent says:

    i used to play on friendfeed, and any hint of the suggestion that maybe science could open up, was maybe a bit too fundamentalist, brought out a lot of united opposition …

    so i assume you must be in the fraternity/sorority, and can get away with it ..

  2. shwu says:

    Gregory, I’m confused by your statement – do you mean that when you suggested that science could maybe open up, you experienced opposition? Or that the conversations about open science that you encountered had fundamentalist overtones that suppressed opposition?

    If it was the latter, I can see how that can happen – the Friendfeed crowd (and I suspect I qualify as one of them) tends to be biased towards openness and the social web by virtue of it being Friendfeed, and folks are very opinionated.

    But some people are starting to realize that proselytizing is not the way to go about it, because, like your comment suggests, it turns people off. Avoiding the idea of “revolution” was a conscious choice Cameron and I made for the Open Science workshop at PSB and what I was trying to get across in my post – that it’s unproductive to push the social agenda, society doesn’t work that way. What we need to do is work on the technology, use the technology, come up with clear guidelines for how to use the technology, and demonstrate that it helps us do better science.

  3. Pingback: Reflection on Open Science Workshop @ PSB 2009 (1) « Science on the fly

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