I recently attended an excellent conference — the third Researcher to Reader Conference, which was held in London in February, and was, in my view, a resounding success. Why a success? Because I found myself engaged, annoyed, irritated, and at times in full agreement with all being said. The opening keynote was from Alison Mudditt, recently installed as CEO of PLOS, who set the tone and theme for the conference – openness. Her talk was entitled Changing the Culture of Research: It’s Everyone’s Problem, and focused on openness through the need to improve transparency, reproducibility and efficiency of scientific research, and how publishers may play a trusted role in this ecosystem. It is a participatory conference, with a range of workshops that you can join. I joined a diversity workshop and it was fascinating, productive, and well-facilitated by Nancy Roberts of Business Inclusivity and Phill Jones of Digital Science. There were other excellent workshops, which addressed open science responsibilities, open access communications and standards, the metadata lifecycle, and open data sharing. The latter workshop focused on the Belmont Forum e-Infrastructures Data Management Project, and sustainable open access to research data.
As the theme of openness continued through the two days of the conference, I realized that while tackling openness – rather than open access — feels right, there was little to no acknowledgement of cultural differences among fields. It was as if large, well-funded scientific and medical fields matter more because there is more money in the system — yes, quite the revelation.
It was almost 60 years ago when C. P. Snow, an English physicist, civil servant and novelist, gave a lecture at Cambridge University entitled The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution, subsequently published as a best-selling book. Snow’s thesis was that “the intellectual life of the whole of Western Society is increasingly being split into two polar groups,” with scientists on the one hand and humanities scholars on the other. He blamed humanities scholars as much as he did scientists, indicating that humanities scholars did not try to understand science, and by the same token scientists assert the dominance of scientific thinking and show little interest in the culture of the humanities. This dynamic has hardened over time, with the apparent reasons for this hardening boiling down to elemental conversations about funding. The truth is the humanities, and I include mathematics in the same breath here, is not funded in the way science is funded. At the American Mathematical Society, where I work, perhaps only 30% of published authors in our journals are directly funded by a funder such as the NSF.
Open access models, and indeed openness as a concept, rely on funding for success. The reality of openness is that one can’t equate the word open with free. Someone along the way has to pay for the research and the publication of that research, recognizing the real costs involved in a thriving information ecosystem. Unfortunately, in a world driven by science, where rich private funders and governments are prepared to pay for science, other cultures — the humanities, social science and math research – are largely left out of the loop. In my world of mathematics there is a good deal of willingness to consider openness, and in fact through the long-term acceptance of the preprint server arXiv, one could say that early versions of research are shared, with publication of that research in a final recorded form still a marker of success. But apart from a vocal minority, mathematicians will tell you that what they care about is being able to do their work, and that openness, and indeed open access, is way down on the priority list of concerns.
While we all want to embrace openness, we cannot say we are being successful unless we understand that it should not be science, and the money behind science, that should inform how other disciplines and cultures proceed. Gold open access as a business model for publishing, for example, simply does not work for many fields, and yet this is where big publishers such as Springer Nature are placing their bets for the future of the publishing business. The implication of accepting that openness is tied to funding is that we may see a further widening between well-funded scientific and medical fields and the social sciences, humanities and mathematics. I would argue that the future of interdisciplinary research is at risk. Let’s take geriatrics and gerontology as an example. On the one hand, the medical and scientific aspects of aging are well funded, with open research and gold open access publishing important as research thrives. On the other hand, what will happen to social research on aging (gerontology), if funding and openness is increasingly sidelined. Is this in fact a path to a deepening divide of the “two cultures”? We need to investigate more richly, and more deeply how scholars in a wide range of fields work, and how openness may be applied to their conditions and motivations.
When I attend conferences, however enjoyable and stimulating they may be, such as the Researcher to Reader Conference, I want to see that thought has been given to how to address divisions in the “Two Cultures” — which C. P. Snow would likely be appalled to find are as apparent as they ever were.