Calls for media, business or government transparency have never been so noisy or so widespread. The mantra “sunlight is the best of disinfectants” (usually attributed to US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis) has been picked up as a cure for bad governance across the piece. But there is an error in the most common interpretation of this idea. Simply disclosing vast volumes of information does not necessitate better governance. That information must be usable and assessable by its recipient, otherwise transparency is not achieving the openness it aims at. It is not intelligent openness.
Scientific progress is built on open deliberation and scrutiny. The practice of peer review and the free flow of scholarly ideas are often held up as a model for an open democratic society. The Royal Society’s new report, Science as an open enterprise, asks how to maintain this openness in the era of digital, data-intensive science.
It is easier than ever to produce and copy information. One researcher can produce the same amount of data that has been stored by the previous five generations of academics in their discipline. And sharing this information is sometimes as easy as copy and paste. But sharing it in a way that means it’s open for scrutiny requires a lot more effort. It requires specialist skills and tools and, when the demand is great enough, whole new institutions. Looking at the various repositories for research data, doing this properly costs between 1 and 10% of research funding.
Spending a year looking into how to achieve this, I have found the volumes of data less and less frightening. But I have been increasingly struck by the diversity of how and why researchers share their data. The intricacies of research data mean that often the value in sharing it only comes from an honest negotiation between potential recipient and data provider. And that means the best solutions are often bespoke.
Transparency as disclosure has its place – take the UK Government’s open public services data. But intelligent openness comes from a conversation not a lengthy monologue.
Make no mistake, this is not scientists eschewing calls for transparency. As Neelie Kroes, Vice-President of the European Commission, says in her video response to our report, “that still leaves a lot of room for change, innovation and openness”. Scroll down the report page to hear her plans for how the Commission will support researchers across Europe who are making these changes or download the transcript. I hope that next week’s Cabinet Office Right to Data White Paper will recommend a way for the research community to come together to make these changes at the national level. Join us on #openscience to continue the conversation or leave a comment on this post.