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Science Commons

The creation of scientific knowledge is a cumulative process, one that depends in the long-run on the rapid and widespread disclosure of new findings, so that they may be quickly discarded if unreliable, or if confirmed can be incorporated into the scientific canon.

Robert K. Merton published a paper in 1942 entitled “The Normative Structure of Science.” In the piece, he set forth what are now known as the Mertonian norms of science which denote principles that ought to guide scientific research:

* Communalism: scientific results are the common property of the entire scientific community.

* Universalism: all scientists can contribute to science regardless of race, nationality, culture, or gender.

* Disinterestedness: scientists should present their results without regard for their personal political, economic, or other interests.

* Originality: claims by researchers must be novel and additive to society’s knowledge and understanding.

* Skepticism: scientific claims must be exposed to critical scrutiny before being accepted.

The ethos of cooperation and sharing implied by Merton’s norms relies on the belief that scientists are motivated by intellectual curiosity, the desire to create new knowledge, peer recognition, and the promotion of the public interest. As a mode generating reliable knowledge, Mertonian “open science” thus depends primarily on a non-market reward system to ensure that the scientific enterprise optimizes the rate of growth of the stock of reliable knowledge.

In the real world, most scientists (like most people) are driven by more selfish goals such as personal economic gain and career advancement more than the selfless motivators noted above. The U.S. intellectual property system provides these selfish actors the means to protect and profit from their work. However, as is commonly acknowledged, it also serves to dampen the influence of Merton’s norms — patents and the knowledge described in them are by definition are not communal property; the prospect of millions of dollars in royalties challenges the patent holder’s ability to be disinterested or skeptical of their own work.

For a time, these two views of science, one “open” and one “proprietary”, were reconciled by calling one “academic” and the other “industrial.” Following the promulgation of the University and Small Business Patent Procedures Act (better known as the Bayh-Dole Act which gave universities and other non-profits the ability to profit from patents derived using federal research dollars) in 1980, though, the academic arm of this duopoly became as challenged by the influence of “selfish” motivators as the industrial. The race for priority, peer recognition, and academic success now added the opportunity for amassing wealth to its somewhat less than Mertonian reality.

Did the academic science realm give something up when the profit motive joined the other more traditional rivalrous behaviors?

In the information technology arena, the “open source software” movement has created a third realm where the Mertonian norms seem to have found new life. Are new efforts such as Sage Bionetworks signs of the rising influence of this third path?

Will a more open future be driven by the communications power of the Internet,the rapidly declining cost of basic technical equipment, and the growth of a do-it-yourself biotech community?

Or, does the high-cost of Big Science and the increasing influence of corporate funding in academic labs suppress “open science” and thus lead to a globally sub-optimal rate of knowledge creation paired with profit for a few dominant players?


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Geoffrey W. Smith

Director, SEP, The Rockefeller University