Open Science is Kinder Science

Commentary: How open software can enable kinder culture IRL — and why we need this in science

By Julie Lowndes. A version of this commentary was published originally in Scientific American.


Photo provided by Julie Lowndes


As a marine ecologist, I never expected I would one day advocate that science should operate more like the tech industry.

This is not about “moving fast and breaking things.” For me, it is about openness.

Open software, both a driver and result of Silicon Valley’s success, has been game-changing for me as a scientist. Its transformative power has improved my ability to analyze data and collaborate with other scientists.

But it is not only about the tool sets and skill sets. It is about mind-sets and culture: An unsung part of open software are its communities that promote and enable a more inclusive, kinder culture.

When I truly began learning the open source programming language R in 2014, I was part of a small team of marine ecologists who needed R to bring order to the chaos of repeating an annual and massive analysis of global ocean health. The first thing that surprised me was that R software was created by real people – real and incredibly nice people – people who I could actually talk with and who made intentional efforts to welcome and include me.

Otherwise intimidated and somewhat scarred by previous experiences coding on my own as a scientist, the kindness and inclusion I experienced from the open-source community was a revelation.

Communities around R – especially rOpenSci, RStudio, The Carpentries, and RLadies – are welcoming, empowering, supportive groups, online and in-person. Their strength is their commitment to diversity, and they deliberately create and nurture a culture that brings together the full spectrum of participants - from newcomers to experienced developers, each with different domains and backgrounds. Online and at open software conferences, there is a deliberate focus on welcoming others, including stated Codes of Conducts and the PacMan Rule, the latter a way of physically standing when in conversation to encourage others to join.

Everyone in the community – no matter how accomplished they are in their own specialty – comes with an open mind to learning from, with, and for each other.

We learn from others by using their code and documentation, their blogs and tutorials, their talks and webinars. We learn with others online through Twitter, discussion forums, and Slack channels, and in-person through coding clubs, hacky hours, meetups, workshops, and conferences. And we learn for others by writing tutorials and blogs about our own learning processes, or adding or fulfilling feature requests, which we can then contribute back to the community.

In this open community, I am bolder about asking questions than I have ever been as a scientist – which is surprising, since I would expect one’s imposter syndrome to double when entering a new domain. In science, asking questions can make me feel vulnerable because it exposes that I do not already know the answer… and maybe I should?

But in the open community, expectations are different. Because we acknowledge – celebrate, in fact – that we all come from different backgrounds, questions don’t expose the lack of knowledge of the asker, but rather expose opportunities for clarification for the original communicator. It is a way to understand expected uses and gaps in explanations, and to include folks from differing backgrounds and perspectives.

A shared expectation that underlies everyone’s openness is that, despite expertise and accomplishment, no single person can know everything, nor should they. But through interacting respectfully and with empathy, we will all learn more and innovate together.

I’m excited for science to be more like this too, and in fact, we are already on our way. Conversations in science these days are centering more and more on inclusion, and scientists are also using open software more and more, as open science continues to gain momentum. These are important steps to include more people in science, but we can still go farther to cross the threshold.

Open science is not just about improving the way we share data and methods; it is also about improving the way we think, work, and interact with each other. It’s about technology *enabling* social infrastructure that can promote inclusivity to create kinder science.

Technology has already changed what is possible in science, and we’ve seen behaviors and mind-sets inside and outside of science shift accordingly.

For example, before email, sharing ideas and information meant sending them through the postal service or on the telephone, with few collaborators and long turnaround times, and frankly this instilled a mind-set that collaborating is hard, slow, and limited. Email lets us share thoughts and documents almost instantly and include multiple recipients at little cost to the sender.

And now, with software like Google Docs and GitHub, we can actually work with each other at the same time with each other, which means we can practically also think together at the same time.

Jenny Bryan, a hero in the R and open software world, talks about “reducing friction” in your analyses. Open software and the mind-set it enables streamlines not only your workflow but also, as I’ve experienced, your interactions with people in real life. It extends the idea of Future You – your most important collaborator whose life and analyses you should always try to make easier – to Future Us, those who could benefit from and build upon your work.

The internet has obviously transformed how scientists work and behave, and open software may be the next stage of our cultural evolution. There are places that are well positioned to seed this change – to be incubators of kinder science, if you will.

I feel that way about the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, a collaborative institute where I am based, and programs like the Mozilla Fellowship, which I was awarded in 2018. And open software communities, like RLadies and others, provide resources and support to scientists to leverage the power of openness.

My own transformation from scientist to open science champion has emboldened me to help enable others, and to help bring the kindness of the open software community to science. That is the whole idea behind the Openscapes, a program I founded that advocates for open practices in environmental science. The idea is to empower early career scientists with existing open tools and communities, focusing on the research group, the campus and beyond.

At Openscapes, our vision is a scientific culture that is more efficient and collaborative, and can uncover environmental solutions faster.

If more scientists borrow from the open-source playbook, we can create environments that are more conducive to collaboration and inquiry.

The result of all this? Better – and kinder – science, done in less time and done together.

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Dr. Julia Stewart Lowndes is the founding director of Openscapes, launched with the support of her Mozilla Fellowship, and a marine data scientist at NCEAS.

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Posted on December 10, 2019