This same boat scientists are on

Scientists are very good at analysing a situation and identifying the problems in it. The notorious situation of scholarly communication is no exception. Most scientists, individually, have an excellent understanding of the situation and how its ramifications impact on their daily practice of research. But what if, collectively, scientists weren’t as clairvoyant? What if, this situation with scholarly communication impacted in subtly different ways from one scientific field to another?

Sitting down at one of those well-meaning interdisciplinary Open Science meetings, implies accepting to talk about problems in general terms. Perhaps it also means becoming blind to the essential, idiosyncratic, scientific dimension of the problem.

Solutions abound. But solutions to what problem exactly?



As a theoretical computer scientist, I haven’t yet come across a single Open Science project offering a solution to a problem that remotely concerns my work in practice. There is no part of my work that involves data so none of the numerous solutions to openly document, organise, publish data concern me the least bit. And in terms of article publications, the only thing that would perhaps help is a cap on the number of papers allowed to be published per year per person (anyone who publishes more than a paper every 18 months in my field is probably polluting the literature with vacuous or repetitive content). And yet from where I stand, Open Science’s general principles make sense and the situation with scholarly communication very concretely and directly determines how well I can do my job.

So what? Does this mean we should give up on finding solutions that work for every science? Or maybe just give up on finding solutions that work for the formal sciences? The other sciences have more in common among themselves, like, they deal with data and publish frequently?

Giving up on common solutions (and common problems) is a small step away from giving up on a common identity.

This is the crux of the matter. Our common identity. Why wouldn’t we want to give up on it? Why do we physicists, historians, biologists, mathematicians, legal scientists… continue to want to be governed by the same institutions, as a unique profession? Why don’t we part ways? Why aren’t we even talking about it? Haven’t we noticed the way we work is so different? What we output is also extremely different. So is what we need to do our work. The present situation is terrible. Why stick together just to continue experiencing it? We’ve been trying to solve the situation for years. It’s taking so long, it might be time to say we failed.

What is this common identity of ours that glues us together?

Perhaps if “we” want to talk meaningfully about “our” common problems, we should start by clarifying who “we” is.

If “we” is the set of people suffering in some way from scholarly publication, then the continuation of “we” is tantamount to the subsistence of the problem.

Hopefully, “we” is something different, that can survive the resolution of the problem.

So what is it that scientists who suffer from the scholarly communication situation have in common other than this situation, or its causes?

Other than the object of traditional scholarly communication, what is this common “science” thing we do that justifies that we continue sharing the same problems and looking for common solutions?

Certainly, every scientist has an idea on that, but every scientist’s idea on that is necessarily anchored in one particular scientific field. The anchoring is a strength. The devil is in the details, we know it. Perhaps it’s time we stopped the superficial buzzwording generalistic interdisciplinarian unverified postulates on what science is, who scientists are, and what they all need. Perhaps it’s time we approached our scholarly problems as scientists with an attention to details, and a preference for questions and rigorous verification.

I doubt any collection of solutions can guarantee a lasting, intended effect if some sciences are dealt with as an afterthought. I also doubt that we can solve scientists’ problems without taking interest in their sciences and looking very closely at what they do in practice to make scientific understanding in their field progress. And I doubt we can avoid sacrificing the common scientist identity if we can’t find commonalities there.

But I have no doubt we will find commonalities.

Not the antiquated semi spiritual BS like “we scientists are discoverers of the Truth”. Not the folklore involving mythological boundaries getting pushed back along endless metaphorical lines.

Small practical commonalities instead. Ordinary things that don’t necessarily distinguish scientists clearly from non-scientists: common intellectual tools that scientists make special intensive use of. Like questions. In my field we can make science without articles, but we certainly can not make science without asking questions. Is this generalisable to other scientific fields?

What else? …

Here’s another one perhaps: we navigate between information expressed in intuitive everyday language, and highly formalised information.

It’s not much but consider the commonalities we’ve been running on lately: “We write articles“, “we write abstracts“, “we list references” / “We work in public institutions” / “We know what Elsevier is“…

We don’t need to aim high as long as we find some common ground. Just enough to anchor a plan of action that actually concerns us all.

To be continued…

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