International Debate

Freedom’s Just Another Word for … Responsibilities

July 6, 2015 2899

freedom versus responsibility graphThere has been much talk about both “academic freedom” as well as the responsibilities of scholars over the past few weeks. Both of these are troublesome concepts, not least because one person’s “freedom” is another’s irresponsible conduct. But particularly in the context of “academic freedom” the question of freedom to do or say what, and what responsibilities come with that is complex. And of course the freedom to speak is not the right to an expectation to be taken seriously. Any such right or authority is also tied to certain, usually unspecified responsibilities.

The question of academic freedom has been most visibly raised in the context of Tim Hunt’s reported comments at a Korean conference. As it happens I have my own story involving Hunt and misintepretation, once which might provide a useful way in to the issue.

At the closing panel of the Berlin11 meeting I spoke in a discussion panel about the progress towards open access and the future of scholarly communications. The meeting, in Berlin, was held in an old building that had been wonderfully refurbished as a conference space. In my remarks I drew an analogy with the building, the idea of taking the best of the past and repurposing it to support the future, noting that the building literally showed the scars of history, in this case the damage inflicted by allied bombing in World War II.

Dr Cameron Neylon

Biophysicist Cameron Neylon is freelance researcher and consultant who speaks and writes regularly on issues of open science. He is the advocacy director for PLoS, but the opinions are his own. This piece originally appeared on his personal blog, Science in the Open, under the title “Freedoms and responsibilities: Goffman, Hunt, Bohannan and Stapel”, and is reposted under CC-0 license.

It was later related to me that Hunt had said that this was a very eloquent defense of journals likeNature and Science. Of course anyone who knows me will know that was absolutely not my intended meaning. What I meant, and what I said, were not congruent with what was heard. My intent was to provoke thought on what was worth keeping, not to defend the status quo. But who is responsible for the misunderstanding? What is my responsibility for greater clarity?

It may seem like a trivial misunderstanding, but it could have not been. We were in Berlin. The building might have a very dark history, certainly it is a near statistical certainty that some members of the audience had lost family members to allied bombing. My comments could have been misintepreted as saying that the building was more important than their relative’s suffering. That issue did not occur to me at the time, and looking back today I am ashamed by that. It may not have changed what I said, but it would certainly have changed the way I said it. As a sufficient authority to be asked to offer my views in the final session of an important meeting I had a responsibility to take care that my comments wereauthoritative but also that they were responsible.

Nobel laureates travel a lot. They are in demand as speakers because they have authority. They have authority obviously in their area of research but also as senior members of the research community they bring a perspective as leaders who have been involved in the governance and strategic development of the research community. When that authority is assumed without sufficient care, or in areas where the person in question is not well informed, the result tends to rebound badly – Jim Watson’s comments on race, Pauling’s on vitamin C come to mind.

To those who are given great authority, whether in the form of Nobel prizes or large Twitter followings, is also given great responsibility. Sometimes discharged well, sometimes not. Academic authority and academic freedom are not easy bedfellows. The right to speak one’s mind is freedom of speech. The ability to deploy one’s authority is not a right. Authority is the ability to be listened to not the ability to speak freely. And that ability comes with responsibility. Academic freedom is not the right to speak one’s mind. It is rather the responsibility to speak on issues, with the authority that arises from scholarly rigor. It is the tradition that employment should not be at risk when a scholar speaks in their area of expertise.

The most damning indictment therefore of the cries of “Academic Freedom” in the defense of Hunt isthat his comments were bad science. They were spectacularly uninformed by the large quantity of literature that shows virtually the opposite of what he said (see Curt Rice’s blog for an up to date summary). Further the defense that “it was just a joke” can only be made by failing to engage with the literature that shows that not only do jokes surface real bias and real issues, but that asking a disdvantaged group to accept something as a joke normalizes that disadvantage. Hilda Bastian has covered this in her excellent post.

The question of responsibility has also been raised in the furore of John Bohannan’s recent exposes, first on fly-by-night scholarly publishers seeking to fleece researchers, and more recently on the reporting, review and publicity around poorly run “medical” studies. In both cases questions are raised of methodology. In the open access sting many commentators, myself included, excoriated Bohannan for not running a proper control, in essence not running a proper scientific study. In the more recent chocolate study issues of ethical oversight and risk to participants were raised. If Bohannan was a scientist, speaking with the authority of a scholar then this would be a reasonable criticism. His own claim of the title “gonzo scientist” raises some interesting questions in this regard but fundamentally he is a journalist and writer, governed by different rules of authority and responsibility.

In the case of the OA sting those questions of authority were muddied by the publication of the piece in Science. Online the distinction between this journalistic piece and a research article is not immediately clear. To be fair, in the piece itself John does make the point that conclusions on the prevalence of poor peer review practices in subscription vs open access journals cannot be drawn from this work. Indeed his aim is a different kind of “proof”, in this case an existence proof of the problem – there are “journals” that do little to no peer review, and many of them are open access.

The problems I have with the piece, and they are many, arguably conflate my expectations of a piece of scholarly research and the responsibilities of a scholar – the need to tell us something new or usefulwith the very different aims of a journalist, to expose an issue to a wider audience. Indeed the very establishment power structures moving into place to defend Hunt are the ones that I, arguably hypocritically, deployed to combat Bohannan. “The problem has been known for some time” “Quiet work was being done on it” “Leave our community to get on and sort out our problems”. But did we need an outsider to make it public enough and urgent enough to drive real action? Did Bohannan have responsibilities to the Open Access community to tell us more about the problem, to do a proper study, or as a journalist was his responsibility to publicly expose the issue?

Alice Goffman is another researcher facing a different set of tensions over responsibility, freedom and authority. Her book On the Run gives a challenging account of inner city life amongst deprived black American youth. Published in 2014 it can be seen as a warning of the subsequent events in Ferguson and Baltimore and other places.

Goffman is an ethnographer and her book started life as a scholarly monograph, but one that has gone on to have success as a mainstream non-fiction book. Ethnography involves working closely with, often living with research subjects, and the protection of the privacy of subjects is held as a very high principle. As described in this Slate article (which is my main source) this generally means obscuring locations, names, even the chronology of events to create a narrative which surfaces a deeper underlying truth about what is going on. Goffman took this responsibility particularly seriously given she observed events that could land people in jail, going so far as to destroy her notebooks so as to protect her research subjects.

But as this uncomfortable narrative became more public and transformed into a mainstream non-fiction book the responsibilities of the author (no longer a scholar?) seemed to change. General non-fiction is supposed to be “true” and Goffman’s rearrangement of facts, people and timelines breaks this expectation. What is interesting is that was in turn is used to raise charges of scholarly misconduct. The responsibility of the author to the reader is in direct conflict with the responsibility of the scholar to their subjects, yet the critic chooses to attack the scholarship. Indeed, given that the criticism and claims of misconduct are based on a forensic analysis of the text in some sense Goffman is under attack because she didn’t do a good enough job of hiding the process of discharging her scholarly responsibilities, leaving inconsistencies in the timelines and events.

Which responsibility trumps which? What does “integrity” mean in this context, or rather disparate and competing contexts, and how does a public scholar working on important and challenging problems navigate those competing issues? Where is Goffman’s academic freedom and where do her academic responsibilities lie? In restricting her space for communication to the academic world? In speaking (her) truth to power? Or is that space left for those licensed to speak through mainstream books? Is it left for Bohannan because only the outsider can make that transition?

The question of research integrity in Goffman’s case is challenging. Her destruction of notebooks certainly disturbs me as someone concerned primarily with the integrity of the research record. But I can respect the logic and to the extent that it is seen as reasonable within her disciplinary context accept that as appropriate scholarly practice.

The question of fraud in natural and social science research may seem much clearer. Diederik Stapel (I could have easily chosen Jan Hendrik Schön or many others) simply made up datasets. Here it seems there are clear lines of responsibility. The scholar is expected to add to the record, not muddy it. As we move towards digital records and data sharing these expectations are rising. Reproducible research is a target that seems plausible at least in some disciplines, although ironically we are perhaps merely returning to the level of record keeping recommended by Robert Boyle in 1660.

Does academic freedom mean the right to publish results based on made up data? Of course not. The scholar has a responsibility to report accurately when speaking in a scholarly context. It is not a crime to make up data, even in a research context. Ideas might be expressed though imagined or constructed datasets, they may even be an integral part of the research process as test sets, statistical tools or training sets. It is a “crime” to misrepresent or mis-use them. Even carelessness is treated a significant misdemeanor, leading as it does to retraction and consequent embarrassment. Where does “carelesness” of the type that leads to retraction become “foolishness” that only requires mild rebuke?

But the idea of a “complete record” and “reproducibility” is a slippery one. In Goffman’s case reproducibility is impossible even in principle. Ethnographers would I imagine regard it as deeply problematic. The responsibility here is not even to report true facts, but the deeper truth – as the scholar sees it – that underlies the events they observe. Stapel may well have thought he was also telling “a truth”, just one for which the data wasn’t quite clean enough. A serious issue behind Bohannan’s chocolate expose is that p-value hacking, searching a weak dataset for “a truth” to tell, is endemic in many disciplines and that peer review as currently constructed is impotent in tackling it. Peer review assumes that authors have taken on board the responsibility to tell the truth (something Bohannan explicitly didn’t do for instance in the correspondence he had with PLOS One staff in the technical checks done before formal peer review).

Many of the technical discussions of reproducibility and data sharing founder on issues of reproducible for who? At what level? In what way? Bohannan shared his data, but you could not now reproduce his “experiment” precisely. His actions make that impossible. Goffman’s data does not exist but events in Ferguson, Baltimore and elsewhere arguably confirm her claims and narrative. Does Amgen’s failure to reproduce the vast majority of findings published on cancer biology in “top journals” mean we have a crisis?

Perhaps better to ask, what is the responsibility of authors publishing in cancer biology to their readers. To tell the truth as they see it? Obviously. To use all the tools at our disposal to prevent us fooling ourselves, to prevent us seeing what we want to see? Certainly. To provide the data? Increasingly so. To ensure the materials (cell lines, antibodies, reagents) are available to those who do want to do direct replication? Oh, that might be too much to expect. Today at least, but tomorrow? This is a discussion about responsibilies. Not technical details. Responsibilities to who, and for what, and how does that vary across disciplines. Perhaps focussing on “reproducibility” is the wrong approach.

As freedom of speech is merely right to a voice, not to a listener, academic freedom has its limits. The boundaries between scholarly speech, within a scholarly community, and wider public speech is blurring, as Goffman and Hunt have found, and as Bohannan has shown us. Context matters, whether the context of my previous writing on the merits and de-merits of Nature, the history of a building, or in the choice to make a joke of the wrong type in the wrong place. And the authority that comes from experience and responsibility in one space does not always travel well into a different context.

Does this mix of contexts and expectations mean we should simply give up? Just be quiet and retreat? That would be the easy answer. But the wrong one. Academic Freedom, or Academic Responsibility comes with the responsibility to speak. But it is a responsibility to be exercised with care. And with empathy for the different contexts that different audiences may find themselves in. Showing our working and showing our thinking. Showing the disciplinary traditions and expectations, the responsibilities that we have assumed, explicitly will help.

Above all, speaking from a position of authority (and I have chosen to use the word authority, rather than power deliberately) means assuming a higher level of responsibility. This is perhaps best summed up in the direct advice “never punch down”. When speaking from a position of scholarly authority the limits of that authority, the limits of the experience, and the care expected in having mastery of the evidence are higher. And this is reasonable. And more and more important if scholarship is to be part of the wider world and not something that is done to it. If, after all, scholarship is about informed criticism and discussion, we all have a responsibility not just to speak, with care, but also to listen.

This piece has been very strongly shaped by a range of recent discussions, most strongly with Michael Nielsen (on John Bohannan’s work) and Michelle Brook (on diversity, power relations, integrity and the tensions between them), but also the ongoing discussion on Twitter and more generally about Tim Hunt’s comments and Bohannan’s recent “sting.”

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