I agree with him on this - without supporting the cultural change towards larger openness science will fall behind other areas of our lives that have been moving on. It is quite ironic that science, which lives from creating and discussing ideas, suffers from an inhibition of spreading and sharing these ideas.
I can see the following reasons for this:
- P1: Especially in physics, there is the prevailing myth of the lonely genius who sits under a tree and waits for the apple to drop on his head. In most instances however, this picture is very incomplete. Even the genius needs a community to work out his ideas, to discuss, and to ask - not to mention that ideas are not born in vacuum but based on the knowledge drawn from that same community.
- P2: Offering spontaneous opinions eg. on blogs or in a forum brings a risk of being wrong. Making mistakes is human, but the atmosphere in scientific discussions is too often unforgiving and malicious instead of supportive and constructive. In many instances, there is also a confusion of intelligence with knowledge. Not knowing something doesn't equal stupidity, but as you could read off for example from the comments on this blog, many people seem to think so. It is rather unsurprising that under such conditions especially scientists who strive to surround themselves with an aura of omniscience are reluctant to potentially embarrass themselves.
- P3: As long as scientists have to justify their existence by producing papers, and live in the constant fear of being scooped, their ideas are not meant to be shared. It is of advantage for them to hear about other's insights, but not to offer own as long as these are not published and every citation goes on record. Scientists simply don't get paid for having ideas, but for working them out with their name-stamp on it. This is sensible in some regards, but has obvious disadvantages when it comes to sharing these ideas, especially in casual though public environments.
Ways to deal with it
- S1: The importance of the community and its support is very underappreciated. We have way too much emphasis on competition instead of collaboration, and the collaborative advantage is badly managed. I think this problem will solve itself since it seems to be a general sociological trend that more people realize the advantage of well-organized collaboration, and that knowledge sharing with the appropriate management can catalyze progress.
This does not mean the times of the lonely genius are over. Collaboration is a way to efficiently use ideas and to discover the potential in already existing knowledge but it still needs human creativity to actually produce novelty. I am emphasizing this because I am very skeptic about the enthusiasm caused by wiki-like collaborative efforts (see e.g. Wikinomics). It is one thing to use existent resources - here, human knowledge - most efficiently, but something completely different to add new. In business one shouldn't neglect the importance of the latter, and in science one shouldn't neglect the importance of the former.
- S2: The problem of potential embarrassment is rather simple to solve in that one realizes an online discussion, though written and public, isn't a scientific publication, and to dwell upon somebodies inaccuracies isn't constructive. Like the first point, this also is a barrier that I believe will vanish by itself since our communication culture shifts towards less formality, also in the sciences. I only have to look at my inbox. The state of mind needed to quote others' inaccuracies and to make fun of them is going to bore people into afterlife in a couple of years.
If you've been around in the blogosphere for a while, either blogging or commenting, you will probably also have noticed that this hesitation is a threshold effect. If you've made a stupid remark once you will realize it doesn't kill you, and the memory of online discussions is very short.
- S3: There's ways to deal with that. For example, I have been wondering for a while why not make it possible for papers to be based on an idea of somebody who eventually wasn't involved in working out the details (please spare me any comments about seers or craftsmen). So that person who eg offered an idea online would get credits for initiating the process but not for presenting the results. There are already attempts into this direction of allowing more detailed information about researchers' contributions. Philip Campbell from Nature recently wrote in a contribution to Ethics in Science and Environmental Politics in an article titled Escape from the Impact Factor:
"I am intrigued by the possibility of greater granularity within the literature. This is already happening in relation to author's contributions. In Nature and Nature research journals (following the lead taken by medical journals, to their great credit), we encourage authors to include brief summaries of which author contributed what to the work. More and more author collaborations are taking up this option. This will be spurred on and will no doubt become more formal if funding agencies begin to explicitly track such information."
Similarly I would prefer funding by interest in somebodies ideas instead of him or her getting funding, and subsequently creating interest through his ability to offer positions (see this previous post to clarify my skepticism about directing research interests through financial incentives). What I mean is consider putting out ideas for projects, and distributing funding according to how much interest a topic received by qualified candidates.
Michael further mentioned the necessity to support people who open up science, which is probably the way most straight-forward. It requires however that even scientists realize times have changed and continuing to organize research like we've done a century ago is a disadvantage and an obstacle to progress.
Regarding the third point, especially with regard to blogs one problem attached to it is a missing time-stamp for posts. With that I do not mean the date on the bottom - this date can be changed arbitrarily, and also the post can be edited a posteriori. This way, the author has no base on which to potentially show "I suggested this earlier here". (Not so with comments btw, at least here on blogger neither the time-stamp nor the content of a comment can be altered). It would be easy enough to change this, for example by allowing a post to be "locked" in a certain version with the current date and content that can't be modified without reverting it to an unlocked state.
See also: Science and the Web 2.0