Open science: circulating knowledge freely

At the National Museum of Natural History, exchanges between scientists from the country and from around the world have always been essential vectors for the production and dissemination of scientific knowledge. The administrative and scientific archives of the establishment bear witness to an uninterrupted conversation between researchers around the world: travel reports, expedition journals, correspondence, cross-shipments between specialists in cases or packages of specimens, filled envelopes seeds, photographs, reprints, books… An incessant ballet of ideas, clues and objects that were not yet called data and which often dispensed with all financial negotiations. This opening to the world was accompanied by an opening to people.

From the first learned societies to the participatory sciences which help enrich contemporary inventories and databases, natural history has been co-constructed with amateurs and enthusiasts of all stripes, without whom collections, essential material for research , could never have been assembled or described.

In short, long before the digital revolution which was a tremendous accelerator of these exchanges, we were doing open science without knowing it. Because the very notion of science is fundamentally inseparable from the opening of minds, which conditions that of publications and data.

Open science! So it should be a pleonasm, but it hasn’t been for decades. How did we get there when for centuries the scientific community had managed to exchange, to organize itself through multiple networks?

When the private sector monopolizes and monetizes knowledge

Let’s say that the coup de grace came from the archangel “bibliometrics”. Private publishers, not content with creating or even recovering many journals, have forged tools such as impact factor (index that quantifies the quality of a journal based on the average number of citations of its articles) or the H-index (another index that quantifies the reputation of a researcher on the basis of citations from his articles) on which the scientists themselves rushed to assess themselves.

The magic of simplistic arithmetic which, despite well-argued criticism, continues to be used and which has padlocked science by providing it with a list of “good” journals, the most expensive of course whose subscriptions for 12 issues can cost several thousand euros, or even exceed 10,000 euros.

Only here, after asking the scientists, most of the time paid by the public authorities, to write their articles, to edit them, to validate those of their peers for free, then to pay to read them, the editors also wished to do pay to publish, simply by offering easier and faster access to publication for a fee.

In short, a form of consent enslavement took hold, where it was necessary to go three times at the checkout. Admittedly, we must recognize the work and added value of the publisher who has skills specific to the promotion and dissemination of scientific activity: editing, structuring and distributing a book, a review, a database, a cost and a PDF warehouse is far from a scientific journal. It is still necessary to appreciate and monetize this work at its fair price, and in many cases, the accounts are no longer good.

Restore knowledge freely

By wanting to win too much, a contrary wind has risen, that of open science. In the age of networks and digital, why shouldn’t scientific knowledge, of everyone, circulate freely? To ask the question is to answer it, especially at a time when the acquisition of new data and knowledge is no longer the flash of some isolated scientist, but the fruit of multiple collaborations. Knowledge advances like a collective wave where everything is shared and where everyone benefits from everyone’s influence. In an economically fractured world, the free flow of scientific knowledge is an undeniable lever for rebalancing and development, including in North-South relationships. Everything that facilitates trade therefore makes sense and has even become an imperative.

The advent of digital technology allows this: beyond publications, the cross-referencing and aggregation of research data from various disciplinary silos makes it possible to accelerate the possibilities of calculation, excavation and analysis through the use of machines and artificial intelligence. For scientific innovation to unfold on this new scale, the data must still be open and interoperable, both technically and legally.

Unfortunately, the only restriction that has been imposed is that of the financial resources allocated to this circulation of information, resources requested and used by a few large private publishers who have had the trick of making the titles of their scientific journals the criterion for evaluating activity of researchers. Because the evaluation is thus carried over to the notoriety of a journal which, without denying its scientific quality, first has its editorial and financial constraints. During an evaluation, it is no longer the scientific content that is looked at and scrutinized in depth, but the only titles and impact factor. The absurdity has become such that I have been able to attend, in a neighboring country, classifications of projects on the basis of the sum of the yews of their bearers. Even more, the same actors have undertaken to retain researchers by highlighting their technological advance to begin to privatize public research data in resolutely proprietary academic applications and networks.

It is easy to see that the system is imploding and that open science is now an economic, ethical and even pragmatic necessity because it will release the brake that limits the wide dissemination of the knowledge acquired, first among scientists and then to a large audience. However, let’s not kid ourselves, the answer is not simple because we must reconcile the wish for this wide dissemination and immediacy with the need for validation. It is necessary to ensure that society has reliable bases and that the dissemination of validated knowledge meeting scientific criteria does not turn into the dissemination of unsupported opinions or beliefs. This is the challenge of this open science which has to do with the strengths and weaknesses of science, an ability to question what was taken for granted, which is not a problem in a slow world, but which can give the appearance of perpetual turmoil in today’s fast paced world.

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