Have you ever stopped to wonder about how much illicit poaching was involved during the construction of science’s ivory tower? Think about it. Who should ultimately own research and who should decide where and when it gets published? From who’s spring does the fountain of knowledge flow?
As I get further into this PhD research, one of the things I find myself wrestling with is to know how much of ‘my’ (I use that very liberally) information and results should be put out into the public (online) domain and when. I mean, there is much from this research to be shared already.
Some of you may be wondering why this question even needs to be asked.
If you are a more traditional scientist or academic upholding the norms of scientific procedure, you would assume responsibility and ownership for the knowledge derived. One would usually suggest waiting until you have analysed and verified the results, tested the conclusions, reflected on the implications and then synthesised the most profound insights so that they ready to be expounded in a high impact scientific journal. If you‘re lucky you might get a few ‘citations’ as time passes. Seems reasonable enough.
If you are not familiar with scientific publishing processes, you may be sitting there and wondering. “What the hell are you waiting for?” Tell us what you found – after all, I gave you half an hour (or more) of my time to get it this far in the first place! Besides, research which is being done with public money should be used for public benefit as soon as possible. This is our research!”
Alas, the latter – whilst making all the common sense in the world – is not standard practice. Scientists have pressures from their host institutions and funders – both of whom are bound to ‘success’ rating based on the quantity and quality (high-ranking) scientific publications. There are also the entrenched and accepted obligations from the companies who publish the mind-boggling amount of scientific and academic journals. What is taught – or maybe indoctrinated – is to keep key results close to one’s chest until they are ready to be published in a peer-reviewed journal. I guess there have been multiple reasons for science evolving in this way. .
Firstly, of course, is that sense of ownership. The results of the insights, at least in the eyes of the scientific community, somehow become your own (although that in itself is debatable, particularly if you have elicited public perceptions through online surveys, or in-depth interviews to obtain your data).Given all the work we have put in terms of the data production, analysis and then expounding insights, we deserve some credit after all! And naturally we don’t want any illicit poaching of ideas either. I am immediately reminded of the quote by Sandra Swinney: “It is amazing how much people can get done if they do not worry about who gets the credit.”
In the scientific community, publishing prolifically can bring a bit of prestige (however flimsy or temporary that may be). If you’re lucky, you become recognised as an expert in this or that based on this new knowledge which has at last cast illumination into a previously unlit corner of scientific understanding. To quote E.O. Wilson: ”Scientists live and die by their ability to depart from the tribe and go out into an unknown terrain and bring back, like a carcass newly speared, some discovery or new fact or theoretical insight and lay it in front of the tribe; and then they all gather and dance around it.” Of which the epilogue may be: devour it, excrete it, bury it, dig it up, spear it again, dance, eat, excrete and so on…And keep telling glorified stories about it.
Secondly, is that by waiting to publish in peer-reviewed journals, your results and insights are usually perceived to gain far more legitimacy and credibility – their acceptance into the scientific domain gives them weight – a rigour and robustness – that a simple random post on the blog can never achieve. We may be familiar with those conversations around the barbeque/braai: “No way! So where did you hear that?” “It was on this guy’s blog.” Ack, mate, don’t believe that stuff!” Or, the alternative: “No way! So where did you hear that?” “It was published in Scientific American” “Really? Gee. That’s amazing. I never thought about it like that before. I’ll check it out.”
Thirdly, as far as the journal publishers are concerned, your information cannot have been published elsewhere before choosing to submit as a journal article to them. That is one of the things that would-be authors must sign off on before they submit a journal article for review. In many senses, it is understandable though not complementary to science for society. However the ultimate irony may be that, even if I did somehow managed to write up my insights to date, submit them to a journal, get them published and have them out before the end of the year (which would be something astonishing in itself), we still have the situation that the majority of scientific journals and scientific articles are not accessible to the general public. One must subscribe to these journals – and that is really something an individual cannot financially afford or would want to do. Of course, the author does have some liberty to circulate some of his/her articles to various people – but unless prior arrangement has been made – he/ she can certainly not post their authored articles on their personal website for download. And even if they could, it is quite likely that the style of language required for the scientific article may not be engaging or understandable enough for the general readership.
So in terms of trying to achieve the ambition of scientific outreach through the course of your research, you come to feel that you’re stuck in between a bit of a rock and a hard place. Which information should I divulge? When should I do it? How should do it? Is this information that ultimately that I will need to draw on in the future in order to publish in a scientific journal (and thus meet the requirements of this PhD)? But when will that be? That might be two years from now, by the time the whole process is done, washed over and somebody else has already done the same? And will the people who have contributed to my research still have an interest by then? Will they feel the same desire or inspiration to digest it and act on it? Isn’t this information which we as society could do with knowing now? If it is relevant for the corporate world, shouldn’t we also be starting to speak more about the idea Scientific Social Responsibility?
Basically, I just had to get that off my chest. I’m still in the early stages of processing data, transcribing interviews and wondering what it is all leading to. But as I engage in this process, I sometimes see some connections, some emerging insights which inspire me to write and will me to share more broadly… before my rational mind stops me: “Matt, are you crazy? Save that for your article in “Science”! And why are you blogging when you’ve got a PhD to write?!” Bah.
Ok, so what is my decision then? I will try and strike the necessary balance. The aim of a transdisciplinary PhD. is about solution-oriented science. It should be about a process of public engagement – and ideally empowerment – from beginning to end. Something inspired by society, done with society and for society.
This of course makes it far more complex and time-consuming. Tiptoeing the sticky interface between science and implementation, between knowing and doing. And toes might also get stood on along the way. The impossible balancing act almost sets you up for an undignified fall!
But I’m told – from those who ironically failed in this endeavour – that ultimately it will be more rewarding.
(Though just don’t expect those rewards to free-flow in the form of scientific publishing prestige!)