7 March 2016

Problematics for science leadership in a data-rich, open-science world

Posted by Nanci Bompey

By Bruce Caron

This is part of a new series of posts that highlight the importance of Earth and space science data and its contributions to society. Posts in this series showcase data facilities and data scientists; explain how Earth and space science data is collected, managed and used; explore what this data tells us about the planet; and delve into the challenges and issues involved in managing and using data. This series is intended to demystify Earth and space science data, and share how this data shapes our understanding of the world.

Across three and a half centuries the academy has built a solid reputation system that informs credentials for science leadership. As global science moves into an open data-, open-access mode, what changes might occur to this system? In the future how will the academy recognize and reward great scientific works and career achievements?

Scientific leadership and the Matthew Effect

The 2013 Research Data Alliance (RDA) plenary at the National Academy of Sciences. Like the Federation of Earth Science Information Partners (ESIP), the RDA builds data stewardship capabilities for the future of open science. Credit: Bruce Caron

The 2013 Research Data Alliance (RDA) plenary at the National Academy of Sciences. Like the Federation of Earth Science Information Partners (ESIP), the RDA builds data stewardship capabilities for the future of open science.
Credit: Bruce Caron

Dr. Marcia McNutt, the incoming president of the National Academy of Sciences, formerly the head of the U.S. Geological Survey, and current editor-in-chief of Science, noted in a 2011 interview on science leadership that reputation in science is a life-long, hard-won but very easy to lose honor. A scientist’s reputation, she notes, is signified through credentials and a track record that reveals scientific integrity or betrays its lack. Scientists do not respect authority. So it is not the leadership position they respect, but rather the individual scientist who holds that position.

When McNutt claims that scientists do not respect authority, she is echoing a founding moment for science and the motto of the Royal Society: Nullius in verba—“nothing on authority,” which was taken from the first Epistle of Horace. The meaning refers to a rejection of written texts—no matter how old or well regarded—in favor of repeatable observations and experiments. The motto marks a pivot away from the writings of Aquinas and others in the quest for a new natural history and philosophy, and the beginnings of the scientific method. Science is an exacting profession in a daily struggle with the limits of knowledge. Evidence is generally incomplete; no proof is ever final. Only the level of confidence improves over time.

Like the scientific facts they propose, the reputations of scientists are liable to falsification. Claims made in their publications are meant to be tested, as are their methods and data. Error is expensive to the scientific reputation of the individual, their institution, the journal that published their findings and the whole academy. As described in this recent Science article on responsibly conducting research, the academy actively promotes best practices to avoid the damage of retractions for any reason.

If we look a little closer at the notion of authority in science we might agree with McNutt that scientists do not respect leadership positions as such (ask any university chancellor). Scientists are also clear that scientific findings need to stand on their own. Nullius in verba undergirds every scientific claim made. However, outside of these two caveats, we find the social side of science entirely bound up with authority. The reputation system of the academy is brimming with arenas for authority to be expressed or gained. Credentials—from the school where you did your doctorate, to the organizations that have recognized you with honors, to the impact-factor of the journals that publish your work—generate their own types of authority. Clearly, scientists actually love authority when they can gain a purchase on some.

The current system of recognition for a scientist supports decisions about lifetime employment (for some), agency and foundation funding for research, publication in respected journals, various prizes from learned societies, and, in some fields, financial returns from consultancies. Reputation-building and its rewards are tightly coupled for the individual scientist. Prizes, publications, funding and tenure are interwoven to a great extent. This circumstance led sociologist Robert Merton to coin a phrase in the 1960s: the Matthew Effect. The rich get richer, and the poor; well, we know what they get. Some scientists get funded because they are good, and they must be good… because they got funded. The result is a kind of “Top Chef” science, where those with the highest reputation gain even more recognition by occupying leadership positions and garnering prizes.

He used to be a scientist

Sitting near the back of a hall at a formative open science conference in San Diego some years ago, I was listening to the speaker outline the need for new metrics for science. In front of me, two fellows whispered together.

“Who is this guy?” said one. “He used to be a scientist,” the other replied.

This remark I took to be both a compliment and a dig. Having turned from doing science to looking at how science is done, the speaker had lost the cachet of being a scientist. At least he used to be one. The same status is true for scientists who become deans or provosts, or who lead professional associations and even national academies. They have the unfortunate fate of becoming leaders in a society where nobody wants to follow them, not even on Twitter. They are all used-to-be scientists. The best they can do is help keep the funding going for others who are still doing science.

Reputation systems all have good and bad points, with the latter being more obvious to those on their margins, and to nosey sociologists. In many ways, the academy’s leadership recognition system has worked long and well for science. The question I bring is this: is this the right system and the only system for Fourth Paradigm (or insert your favorite descriptor) open science? Are there alternative ways to promote reputation and leadership that open up more opportunities and encourage broader leadership capabilities as science expands to embrace open data, open software, open workflows, open models, and open access publication? Recently, the National Science Foundation began allowing a wider range of research outputs, such as software, to be included in proposal biographies. What does a future open science biography look like? What gets put in, and what gets left out?

Haec omnia in datis sunt

The “long tail” of science—the end far away from Top Chef scientists—is very long and quite diverse. More than seven million people make a living doing science across the globe, with millions more employed to teach science in schools. Hundreds of millions of students learn about science each year. More than a million science papers are published annually. Sci-Hub, the pirate source for science journal articles, has forty-eight million of these, and has delivered content to nineteen million users. The science sub-Reddit r/science has more than ten million subscribers.

Top Chef scientists do very good work in their Tier One institutions. However, just as Sun Microsystems co-founder Bill Joy noted about innovation, most of science happens elsewhere. As science opens up, the internet brings that elsewhere into play. How will leaders emerge from this broad ocean of networked science? How can we choose Top Chefs from a globally connected science endeavor? While the reader may be expecting me to now list several altmetric badges or other modes of recognition, I would like to propose just two metrics for now:

  1. The sharing of data with full provenance and,
  2. The reuse of these data.

As global open science emerges, data resources will be added to a variety of open repositories, from individual and institutional collections to national and international repositories. These data—big and small—will be generated through ever-more ubiquitous collection methods by a still-growing number of scientists across the globe. Combined, these new resources enable entirely novel synthesis opportunities for new knowledge created from existing data. The network effect, which calculates how the value of networks multiply as they grow, holds true for data. Adding a single new data resource to an open repository multiplies its value for scientists everywhere. When everyone, including Top Chef scientists, share their recipes (their data), the internet opens up lateral learning potentials that can push science to a higher velocity of discovery.

Opening up your data requires a lot more than publishing a PDF of your spreadsheet. Remember, data is the pluperfect participle for the Latin verb do, “to give.” Data are “things that have been given.” The value of this gift is highly dependent on its provenance and the completeness of its description. Producing shareable data also means opening up and sharing workflows, methodologies, and software. Haec omnia in datis sunt: “It’s all in the data.” That includes the reputation of the team that created the data.

Science leadership for a data-rich academy

In the not-too-distant future, when it comes to choosing a scientist to lead your science organization, you might want to pick somebody who has a track record of sharing the data their team spent so much time and care to gather and describe, and whose data are actively used by others to create new knowledge; somebody who has shown integrity in their workflow and a concern not just for their own research but also for the wider science research realm. Using data sharing and reuse as metrics for science prizes, career decisions and leadership positions realigns global science with the promise of its digital future.

Bruce Caron is the executive director of the New Media Research Institute in Santa Barbara, CA.