The murder of science and the suicide of the scientists

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Over the last months some epistemologically worrying events have occurred in the scientific community. The first concerns the prohibition to publish the experimental methods concerning how the virus N5H1 has been modified; the second regards published scientific papers with totally or partially non-disclosed data; and the third a potential step back with open access policies for scientific publishing.

Regarding the N5H1 virus, you surely remember that there were two studies under review and that, on December 20, 2011, the U.S. Science Advisory Board on Biosecurity “decided to recommend that […] the novel outcome be published, but that the manuscripts not include the methodological and other details that could enable replication of the experiments by those who would seek to do harm” . Fortunately, the prohibition has been withdrawn but the banning event remains.

Regarding the second, in a correspondence to Nature, Huberman criticized papers in the field of social science containing non-disclosed data coming from sources connected to private companies like Google, Facebook, and Twitter. Along the same avenue, the meta-review provided by Alsheik-Ali and colleagues can be read. Here the authors show that, despite the publishing requirements, many times data are totally or partially omitted in papers in top journals in the biomedical field.

As for the third, it made news a bill proposed to the US Congress (HR 3699) aimed once again this year to revert the National Institute of Health policy that requires taxpayer-funded research to be freely accessible online. HR 3699 was sponsored, among others, by many life science and medical publishers. As publicly pointed out by the open access movement, these private companies profit from knowledge generated mainly from public money, by selling access to it mainly to public institutions. The bill was dropped after a public outcry by scholars that is now culminating in a petition to the US President to require free access to taxpayer funded knowledge. Despite healthy opposition by practicing scientists, the vast majority of academic institutions, charities and public funding agencies are still not mandating open access as a condition to support research. As a result, entrenched economic practices effectively restrict availability and open sharing of scientific knowledge.

Someone could claim that there are security, competitive or economic reasons for slipping away from the traditional meaning of doing science, or that privacy or intellectual propriety should be protected. But they do not seem to be aware that in this way science, as it has been theorized and practiced up to now, is sentenced to death. Since its modern beginning, the scientific method has been characterized by the inter-subjective controllability and public scrutiny. Inter-subjective controllability means that a paper, to be a scientific report, necessarily (even if not sufficiently) has to contain both the methods through which, and the data from which, the results have been obtained. Subjection to public scrutiny implies that methods and data have to be accessible to broad evaluation of peers and society alike, not locked behind pay-walls.

Now we are being told that the communication of both the methods and the data is not necessary. We are also being told that access to both is restricted, even for those who paid or produced them. This means that we are not doing science, or at least what we have called science up to now. We have the possibility of changing the paradigm and calling whatever we want science. But we should be aware of what we are doing. Surely we are not doing science as it has been done since Galilei’s age. Are we aware of this? Or are we simply killing science and are we - scientists - committing an epistemological suicide? Science has been done by men and men can change their mind on what science is and how it is to be done. The important thing is to know what we are doing and a pinch of philosophy of science competence is recommended.

 Published on Nature 488 (2012), 157

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