On the Cultural Heritage of Science

Fabiana Kubke

I think I met Penny Carnaby, then National Librarian, back in 2010.

She did not have to convince me about the value of Open Access. What I did learn from her was that Open Access had implications that went beyond the value of sharing scientific findings as broadly as possible. Science after all is a human activity, and as such, part of our cultural heritage.

Until then I thought of research publications as being about sharing results – or rather making them publicly known. There is value in that, and the more broadly access to those findings is given, and the more flexible the licenses for reuse that are attached to them, the better. Open Access under open licenses allows that. But when challenged with the idea of the cultural heritage of science I started thinking about what science is – and about how there is much more to science than just that published article.

Research articles constitute a narrative that is built around the gathered data. The structure of that story is partly defined by the data, the models prescribed by scholarly publishers, and to some extent, the audience – primarily other researchers. This narrative, however, does not necessarily reflect the process of science –a process that produced the data in the first place.


Pottery by gnackgnackgnack, via Flickr. Made available using a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial 2.0 Licence.

A lot of what happens in science that ultimately leads to the “paper” takes the form of conversations around small tables, reading and reflections on the bus, or seemingly random thoughts on a sleepless night. We struggle with things we don’t understand. We seek advice from our colleagues or information in the published literature. We talk a lot – at lab meetings, conferences, holding a pipette over the bench, or while trying to figure out what that strange structure under the microscope is. That is the science happening. The article is what happens after all of that is done and dusted, and rarely, if ever, does it share what got us to that point.

There is no room in the scholarly article to capture that process. Yet, I’d like to argue, understanding this process is crucial for understanding science. The paper helps us get the knowledge. But the science lives in that messy and wonderful process. You can’t become a scientist by reading journal articles – you learn to be a scientist by being a scientist and participating in that array of human activities that form part of the cultural experience of science.

I am grateful to Penny for making me look at science as a human activity – not unlike writing a book, moulding a pot out of clay, or painting a landscape. And like these other activities, preserving the end product is easier than capturing the process. But unlike these other creators, we scientists are in the unique position of not directly profiting from the sales of our creative output. As Peter Suber eloquently puts it:

“It’s enough to know that their employers pay them salaries, freeing them to give away their work, that they write for impact rather than money, and that they score career points when they make the kind of impact they hoped to make.”[1]

There is nothing in today’s technology that prevents us from freely sharing our findings. So why not start sharing more openly and broadly both the process and the final manuscripts? Why not make sure those articles can be preserved, used, re-used, mixed and mashed by institutions and individuals?

I say it is time to say goodbye to ‘publish or perish’ and time to say hello to ‘share or perish’.

[1] Suber, P. (2012). Open access. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Fabiana Kubke is Senior Lecturer, School of Medical Sciences, at the University of Auckland. She is a former member of the Advisory Panel for Creative Commons Aotearoa New Zealand. You can read more from Fabiana at her blog, Building Blogs of Science, part of the Science Media Centre’s SciBlogs network. Recently, she has also started blogging for the Public Library of Science.

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One Response to On the Cultural Heritage of Science

  1. Maria Persson 24 October 2012 at 10:39 am #

    Thank you for such an insightful and thoughtful read! I have to say that growing up in a very poor family – immigrants from a non English speaking country – then finally coming to grips with more than 4 languages, it has been a journey where if sharing was not done by key educators in my life, I’m sure I would have perished. My mind would have shrivelled!

    Communication sharing (in whatever form), which is a key contributor to human activity, is becoming more essential in a technologically driven world. Holding tight to ‘written’ intellectual property and not sharing it only keeps power in the hands of tyrants who are bullies and weak individuals – afraid of educating, providing choice, insight, innovation, creativity and power sharing with those who could use it. Thanks again Fabiana!