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Research Nirvana: The Generosity Edition

Cartoon of research nirvana: experimental theater


Research Nirvana… What would it be like and what paths could lead us there?

That was the theme of my recent talk at the Evidence Live conference in Oxford. I narrowed it down to a listicle – all 7 points are below* – and mostly it was concrete: like highly detailed research protocols, and open science. But most of the discussion with me afterwards – right across the rest of the conference – was around this one:

Generosity will be a professional norm.

This is a flag I’ve waved here before. But last week, my answers to questions like these were inadequate: Exactly what does generosity in science mean? What can we do to make scientific culture more generous? And there was a pointed question from Iain Chalmers about my view of a recent change made in the Cochrane Collaboration, a group we and many others had built together back in the early 1990s. I’ll try to answer those questions better here.

Back in 2002, a US survey found scientists saw more behavior that did not conform to scientific norms than did [PDF]. In some ways, it’s getting worse, with “creeping propertization” and more.

A survey by the Nuffield Council of Bioethics in the UK last year found a lot of dissatisfaction about where science is heading [PDF]. It’s becoming hypercompetitive and we’re “rewarding self-promoters”, leading to poor research practices and less collaboration.

That kind of behavior can get people ahead – but hype and lack of collaboration can also “kill an entire field for a decade or more”. Unsustainable hypercompetition and funding constraints in US biomedical science, others warn, “is a recipe for long-term decline”.

But of course, competitiveness, commercialization, corner-cutting, and snatching of other people’s ideas and due credit aren’t the whole story of science today. Here’s Michael Carroll, from Creative Commons, addressing a conference of young open access advocates in 2014:

What is your generation going to do? You don’t have a choice. You will make a mark. Will it be the mark of apathy? Or will you make the internet what it could be?… Without having a solid grip on the values that inspire you and inspire this movement you can be led astray.


Cartoon of proposal to knock out hubris in science's DNA and replacing it with generosity


I agree, strongly, with Carroll. Thinking explicitly about values, and how to live them in our choices, is critical. You can’t just leave it to chance. The line of least resistance can take us across lines we don’t really want to cross. Options can feel “good” and “right” because they are in our self-interest.

Cultivating generosity seems to me to be one essential way to counteract several negative trends in science. It’s relevant to personal behavior, scientific practice, and collective behavior – including workplaces and professional organizations.

Generosity is a character trait that we can encourage to grow throughout our lives. For Aristotle, it had a quite narrow meaning to do with bestowing goods on “deserving” others, but its meaning has grown over time. Now, definitions of generosity as a virtue encompass fairness and much that is the opposite of greed and self-interest. For Marguerite La Caze, “If we have generosity, we will not prefer ourselves to others” [PDF].

For me, this is how generosity can unfold in scientific practice:


Image of aspects of generosity in science - listed at end of post


It’s hard to be generous, when we often have to guard ourselves against those who will be the opposite – taking credit, taking advantage, capitalizing the efforts of others. Seeing these things more clearly for what they are is an important start, though, so we can stop rewarding negative behavior mingled in with the science.

We need to articulate our values in our organizations, and in all sorts of unfair practices that are too easy to slip into without thinking. When do “citizen science” and “crowd sourcing” become a way to dress up exploitation of free labor, for example? If we want to shape our culture, thinking through the meaning of culture-bearing elements is worth the effort.

Which brings me to the question Chalmers raised as an example here. The Cochrane Collaboration recently decided to change its logo to sharpen its “brand” – mostly by dropping the word “Collaboration”. I answered his question by saying I thought that was sad, and sent the wrong message. But it’s more than sad. According to Robert Cooke and Denise Rousseau (1988):

[S]ymbols that represent the organization or its members (such as logos and titles) have meaning and value attached to them that reinforce the way people behave and think.

Embracing a collaboration-less public identity is an important signal, for an organization now explicitly aiming to draw people to a brand with products to sell, rather than to the best research to answer their questions [PDF]. And more than a fifth of the global income is apparently directed to the organization’s rapidly growing central administrative layer [PDF].

That commercialization and rise of administrative classes is mirrored in many places in science, medicine, and higher education. How we each choose, as individuals, to stand in relation to issues relating to the elements of generosity, shapes our culture, too, though.

Patricia Sorrano and colleagues discuss this in one concrete area in environmental science – sharing data openly and freely in public repositories:

Current data-sharing conversations are focused on overcoming the technological challenges associated with data sharing and the lack of rewards and incentives for individuals to share data. We argue that the most important conversation has yet to take place…[A] critical shift…is happening in both society and the environmental science community that makes data sharing not just good but ethically obligatory. This is a shift toward the ethical value of promoting inclusivity within and beyond science.

We don’t always have a choice, of course. We often do, though – especially in giving and sharing credit. Generosity is personal. In the end, it’s political, too.



Graphic notes of my Evidence Live talk
Visual representation of my Evidence Live 2016 Talk by Stefania Marcoli: @stefania

*  My Research Nirvana listicle for clinical research:


Studies will have highly detailed protocols and methods.

Research will systematically address patient and community needs.

Results will be expressed in ways that are widely understandable.

We will have re-conceptualized the systematic review.

There will be open peer review, open access, and a strong post-publication culture.

Generosity will be a professional norm.

We will have successful cognitive de-biasing techniques.



Disclosure statement: I was invited to speak at Evidence Live, and my participation was supported by the organizers, a partnership between The BMJ and the Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine at the University of Oxford’s Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Sciences.


Elements of generosity included in the image in this post:

  • Diversity
  • Fairness
  • Collaboration
  • Service
  • Openness
  • Sharing
  • Giving


* The thoughts Hilda Bastian expresses here at Absolutely Maybe are personal, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Institutes of Health or the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.


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