Tuesday, July 23, 2019

An ethical duty for open science?

Let's do a thought experiment. Imagine that you are the editor of a top-flight scientific journal. You are approached by a famous researcher who has developed a novel molecule that is a cure for a common disease, at least in a particular model organism. She would like to publish in your journal. Here's the catch: her proposed paper describes the molecule and asserts its curative properties. You are a specialist in this field, and she will personally show you any evidence that you need to convince you that she is correct – including allowing you to administer this molecule to an animal under your control and allowing you to verify that the molecule is indeed the one that she claims it is. But she will not put any of these details in the paper, which will contain only the factual assertion.

Here's the question: should you publish the paper?

If you publish it quickly, you will ensure that the molecule is known quickly and hence that translational research to humans will commence as soon as possible. This step will likely save many lives. In addition, the article is likely to be well-cited (since, as we have stipulated, it is correct). So publication should be assured, right?

On the other hand, perhaps you share some reservations about publication. This paper doesn't look like a traditional scientific paper: it provides no methods or data, it only asserts a conclusion. There is no way for a reader to reproduce the experiments that led to the assertion, since no experiments are even mentioned. That doesn't feel like science. Maybe it’s worthy of being published in the newspaper. But not in a scientific journal.

Further, you might be worried about the precedent set by this individual decision. Isn’t this person saying that the editor is the sole arbiter of the work they’ve done? How will this work out in the hands of other editors? Also, who gets to write such an article? You paid attention to this person because she was already famous – but you probably wouldn’t have taken time to verify the work of an unknown scientist so it could be published in this way.

I posted a version of this thought experiment as a twitter poll, and – with 1,025 respondents – saw only 6% recommending publication:
Even though this was a self-selected group of respondents, that’s as strong an intuition as you’d pretty much ever find.

Remember, if we were purely utilitarian in our treatment of scientific reporting standards, this would be an obvious case: we should publish the paper. Perhaps we could make an argument about the long term utility of the precedent, but that’s an analysis of future rule-making, not the logic of this particular case. Thus, the intuition that the paper shouldn’t be published stems from something other than the immediate utility of the situation.

Perhaps, like me, you think that the essence of science is verifiability – so if others can’t check your work, you are not contributing to science.

This thought experiment demonstrates that we feel that scientists have a duty to report our methods and data to the community as part of reporting our findings. What is the nature of this duty? It is not based on the utility of any individual instance of publication. Is it a conventional norm that we can violate? In other words, is it like wearing pajamas to work – we don't happen to do that around here, but if we did it would be OK?

Let's try a further thought experiment (based on Nucci & Turiel, 1978). Imagine now that there were a journal where people did just publish assertions, and didn't have to report methods or results. (In this further thought experiment, we don't stipulate that the assertions are correct). Would this still be a real scientific journal? I think the judgment is pretty clear that it wouldn't be. It would be an opinion magazine on the topic of science but it wouldn't be science. So the intuition that we we shouldn't publish the assertion paper is not an intuition about social conventions or norms.

Instead, the duty has the force of a moral or ethical norm, something that is in force regardless of what some particular community's norms are. In other words, more like stealing and hurting people – wrong pretty mostly always – than like wearing pajamas to work. Consider the idea of "pseudoscience": this is a word that refers precisely to communities or people who say they are doing science but are actually violating the principles of science!

This ethical norm emerges from concerns about benefits to a broader community (the scientific enterprise as a whole) rather than from concerns for the individual researcher. And it feels tied up in concerns about fairness or universality as well. A scientist getting to publish because she's famous and maybe more likely to be believed (or perhaps even more likely to be right) doesn't feel like a fair way that science to work. You might even say that the norm of reporting information for verification and assessment of scientific findings is a deontological norm: one that is designed so that it can appropriately or fairly be held by the entire community.

No one has to write scientific papers, of course, but if they choose to, they have to report sufficient information for another researcher to verify their conclusions. An assertion just won’t do.

I’ll just end with a question. Why does the ethical duty to provide verification information stop at the conventional reporting standards of a scientific paper, which – as many people have observed – are insufficient for fully reproducing the data analysis or independently replicating the data collection?

(Thanks to Tom Hardwicke for discussion.)

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