I had the chance to attend last week’s discussion group on research ethics, co-hosted by FOSEP and the Center for Biological Futures. Though many of the examples and issues were specifically related to developments in molecular biology, like the need to consider how producing a deadly virus for research may harm the public, the examples also raised ethical questions of science’s responsibility to be open to the public about its findings. This got me thinking about the recent developments in science towards more openness and transparency.
Openness and transparency of methods and research findings helps to ensure scientific integrity, and I think that many questions about ethics are related to how open and honest a scientist is about his methods, results, and interpretations. Furthermore, much research is publicly funded, so there’s some responsibility to make scientific knowledge available to the public. It seems that more openness in the scientific process would help tackle some of the ethical issues, such as scientific fraud. But would it create even more ethical issues?
With more people gaining access to the internet, it’s becoming easier to put much of the scientific process out in the open for others to see. If we start at the back end of the process, with the publishing of results, there’s the movement towards open access publishing. While many scientific findings are still published in journals that require subscriptions to gain access, open access publishing and the release of older journal articles have made it easier for all scientists and the public to have access to scientific findings. (Whether these studies are then read by the general public or whether they are comprehensible to the public is another point worthy of a whole blog post.) Certain open access publishers, like Copernicus Publications, have even implemented public peer review, which essentially makes the review process transparent to scientists and to the greater public.
Recent efforts have attempted to push this openness further by making scientific datasets more available through shared databanks. And finally, there’s the provocative idea of putting and sharing scientific developments online to allow almost anyone with access to the internet to contribute to the scientific process (see Michael Nielsen’s TED talk on Open Science here).
There are many technical and logistical issues about these new developments. While they may help science to become a more transparent process, they also have the potential of raising other ethical issues. Especially when it comes to putting the whole scientific process online, there are questions like, who takes credit for scientific developments? How is scientific merit then assessed? Who involved in the process will have to take responsibility if results turn out fraudulent? It’ll be interesting to see how these issues get tackled if indeed science becomes a more open/more collaborative endeavor.