January 7, 2016

Can Open Science dissolve divides between research cultures?

In this blog post I discuss if and how the three research cultures of the natural sciences, social sciences and humanities can be bridged or equalized. The starting point for this is the article “Open Science and the Three Cultures, Expanding Open Science to all Domains of Knowledge Creation” by Michelle Sidler. In this article she presumes that bridging between the three cultures of scientific research is possible and that it can be accomplished by the open science movement. Her arguments imply some background assumptions that are not discussed in her article and create the need for further reflections. By discussing the article I will critically examine the underlying assumptions as well as the potential of the open science movement to bridge between the research cultures.

One 'problem' that can be found in the scientific system is that the three research cultures of natural science, social science and the humanities are deeply divided and that there is a lack of mutual respect between the respective scholars. Also their social status and what they are considered to be able to contribute to the society and its progress, is much different. Michelle Sidler (2014) argues that the open science movement would be able to bridge the three cultures of scientific research. In her opinion this is both possible and worth striving for.
The main argument of Sidler is that because the open science movement was able to make some decisive changes in the scientific system, it would also have the power to bridge between the three research cultures. Generally I think it is a reputable idea to make some efforts to decrease the division between the natural sciences, the social sciences and the humanities. Mainly because this could in turn increase mutual respect, which could than be the ground for establishing valuable collaboration. But how they could be bridged and what kind of bridging would be reasonable is a much more delicate question.
Sidler herself does not deliberate on this. She actually does not even clarify what she means by bridging.

Summary of the Article

In Sidlers article that was published in the book 'Opening Science' (2014, published as an open access eBook: http://book.openingscience.org/basics_background/open_science_and_the_three_cultures.html) she talks about the natural sciences, social sciences and humanities as three research cultures or traditions, that are divided by the use of different theories, methods, languages, epistemologies, different communication and publication practices and much more. For example also the buildings they are based in. The roots of this divide she finds in the conversion of universities at the beginning of the 20th century from places where students were encouraged to find their own fields of interest and take the according courses, to universities with fixed study programs. Of course the roots of the divide could also be dated back much further, but the roots for the specific current situation can at least to some extend be found in this modification of universities and academic studying. Still, I want to mention that different camps with different worldviews, methods and theories already existed much earlier. For example by the time of the ancient Greeks, between the natural philosophers and the sophists, who have virtually nothing in common. This is an important remark, because it opens up the question if bridging research cultures is even possible or desirable, at least in the sense of equalizing and standardizing.

Normative assumptions in the article

Sidler is of the opinion that the open science movement is able to bridge between the three research cultures. Because actions of this movement introduced changes of the scientific system before, it should also be able to dissolve the division between the three research cultures. Sidler mentions two strategies that would help bridging between them.
The first strategy is introducing the moniker 'Open Science' or 'Open Knowledge' as replacement of the term 'Science' that could lead to a broader definition of science. This moniker should serve as a more inclusive term, that does not depict the differences between the research cultures on the layer of language. By using the term 'Open Knowledge' all the three cultures are included. At this point I need to mention that this problem with the term 'Science' does exist in the English language, but for example not in German, where 'Science' (Wissenschaft) does not just mean the natural sciences but also the SSH.
The second strategy she mentions is that the SSH should adopt digital tools of open science in research that are already applied in the natural sciences. Examples for digital tools she mentions in her article are such that enable to store data and make it accessible on the internet, as well as digital data processing.
While in my experience many of those digital tools are already in use and are usually not associated with open science, I honestly do not get how this should bridge anything. Of course some similarities emerge from the use of similar methods and ways of handling data, but the differences we talk about here are much more fundamental and can in my opinion not be dissolved by applying similar tools for storing and sharing data.

Sidler also points out that the communication practices are very different in the respective disciplines and research cultures. She emphasizes that the open science movement needs to acknowledge these differences and specific qualities before introducing changes that would help bridging the three cultures. Ultimately, she pleas for the establishment of communication and publication in an open science style in the SSH like faster publication speed and short articles instead of books. But this in turn does not acknowledge the specific qualities of the SSH and the way they produce knowledge.

Open Questions

The article opens up a very interesting topic, because decreasing the divide between what Sidler calls research cultures is in my opinion a very promising enterprise. Not so much because this could foster innovation processes and progress of science (even if this could be the case and certainly would be the argument in policy papers or the like), but because I think that the value of the SSH is often underestimated and downplayed as not being the real science, while natural sciences get much more credit, because their impact is much more visible and they produce real facts while social scientists only juggle around with opinions.
However, Sidler opens up a number of important questions that she does not answer or not even pose in her article. This is because they remain as implicit background assumptions, that are revealed by refering to them as questions:
  • Is it possible that the three research cultures are bridged/equalized?
  • Is open science able to induce such changes that lead to bridging the three cultures of research?
  • What does bridging mean and how could it be done?
  • What kind of bridging is reasonable?
  • Could bridging activities destroy valuable scientific structures?
The unanswered questions Sidler's article leaves behind makes it obvious that she is very optimistic regarding the possibilities of dissolving the differences between the research cultures and the power of the open science movement. Further she overlooks that bridging and equalizing is not always desirable, because certain qualities that are unique to specific disciplines could be destroyed by bridging, equalizing or standardizing. But these qualities often are the reason why these disciplines exist and justify their existence.

What is 'bridging'?

In our open science seminar we discussed the background assumption of how the research cultures could be bridged by first asking if they could be bridge and if this would make sense in all instances and on all levels.
First, it is hard to discuss this topic if the term bridging is not clarified. Bridging could mean equalizing and erasing all differences apart from the subject of study. It could also just mean increasing mutual understanding and respect between the research cultures. Another meaning could be dissolving the differences regarding status and the perceived value of the respective disciplines. Also mixes and gradations between those meanings of bridging are possible. Anyway, it is important to make clear what is talked about when someone argues that the research cultures can and should be bridged.

In my opinion, and probably most scholars that are engaged with Science and Technology Studies (STS) would agree, that bridging in terms of equalizing is not possible or at least not reasonable, because it would destroy valuable epistemic cultures. For example changing the type of communicating new knowledge from books to short articles is more than just a matter of style that can be changed without any consequences. The reasons why specific publication types, methods, theories etc. are applied depends on the disciplines, their specific questions, perspectives and the kind of knowledge that arises as a result. This is by the way not just the case in the SSH, but in the natural sciences as well. For this reason I am convinced that bridging in terms of equalizing would do science as a whole more harm than it would foster or trigger progress and innovation. Except there is some interest in reducing diversity and plurality of knowledge and knowledge production, it does not really make sense to equalize scientific cultures and disciplines.

What bridging coud be

Bridging in the sense of increasing mutual respect on the other hand can be considered as much more desirable. This would enable collaboration and interdisciplinary research, which is very trendy at the moment, but often probably not really interdisciplinary, because of a lack of respect for the respective other disciplines, the lack of openness toward other perspectives and approaches and of course also because there is little experience of how interdisciplinary research can be done. This already points to the reason why bridging in terms of increasing mutual respect is not an easy exercise and and why open science is probably not the movement that is able to change this. The problem I am talking about is that scholars are usually convinced that their discipline, their perspective, theory, method etc. is 'the right one' and that it enables to see things and ask questions in a very unique and valuable way that makes its existence necessary and distinguishes it from the other disciplines. This is related to so called 'boundary work' that is done by researchers to establish a discipline and to justify its existence by arguing for its uniqueness and the consequential value. Because the historic development of scientific disciplines is traversed by such boundary work, the scientific training of a researcher contains many arguments of how a discipline justifies its existence, which is one of the reasons why scholars have the conviction that their discipline and perspective is the right one to answer specific questions. Because of this conviction the respect for other disciplines and in particular the openness towards them is often very limited. This circumstance is completely overlooked by Sidler and is in my opinion not be resolvable by the open science movement, except open science would be able to dismantle the boarders between scientific disciplines. But this would in turn raise the problem I discussed before, that valuable and unique research traditions could be destroyed.
In general I find it worth striving for bridging in terms of increasing mutual respect. This is because I am convinced that this would lead to better research that can be oriented more on questions than on disciplinary perspectives. But I doubt that the movement of open science is the right actor for introducing the necessary changes.

We discussed these issues by the example of the different research traditions of qualitative and quantitative research in the social sciences and more specifically in sociology. We came to the conclusion that even between rather small sub-disciplines such as quantitative and qualitative research, which both have their own premises, worldviews and convictions, it is hard to bridge between them. Further we found that in some parts it is not desirable, but in others very promising to accomplish this. First, both research traditions have their purpose and specific value, which makes it unreasonable to equalize them and erase their differences. Second, they are not utterly compatible. They do not just use different methods, they also ask different questions, strive for different answers and build on entirely different concepts. This makes it very hard to establish some common ground, especially because they camps disagree and argue for decades about which is the better way of doing research. But on the other hand I am of the opinion that mutual respect, willingness of collaboration and the combination of these methods of scientific research would lead to very interesting projects that could lead to even more interesting results. To do this it would be necessary to understand the differences and specific qualities as resources that can be combined in the context of a research project. And this would not even mean giving up the respective specific quality that defines the discipline.
By this example we showed how complicated it is to bridge between research cultures or traditions and that this is just reasonable under specific conditions. I think it is obvious that the differences between much bigger scientific cultures like the natural sciences and the social sciences are not less complicated to be bridged.

One more possible meaning of bridging I want to discuss here is the one of adjusting the status and perceived value of the three research cultures. Obviously, this means increasing the status of the SSH in relation to the natural sciences that are perceived as contributing much more to scientific progress than the others. Because I am a social scientist myself, I want to restrain myself in arguing for increasing the status for the SSH, but I want to mention one thing regarding this issue of different status that I find relevant in this context. In the status differences between the natural sciences and the SSH I see some relations to what is understood as science in contemporary societies. From the era of enlightenment, which is the basis of the actual scientific system we inherited a specific epistemology and theory of science that lead to the so called triumph of science, more specifically natural science. While the natural sciences are since than perceived as important contributors to progress and the development of modernity, scholars of the SSH are more perceived as people who sit in the proverbial ivory tower and write about complicated stuff no one understands. Independent from how much of this is or was true or not, this persisting perception and the related idea of hard factual science and soft or ambiguous social science writing is one of the reasons for the deep divide between the natural sciences one the one side and the SSH on the other side.
I do not want to say that open science is not able to introduce some change that could help bridging the scientific research cultures, especially in conjunction with real interdisciplinary research, because it forces researchers to open themselves up for other disciplines and perspectives, which is the first step in establishing respect.
But considering the deepness of the divide and the necessity of some differences I do not believe that open science alone will be able to accomplish a reasonable degree of bridging, that increases mutual respect, but does not destroy epistemic cultures.

  • Sidler, M. (2014). Open Science and the Three Cultures, Expanding Open Science to all Domains of Knowledge Creation. In: Bartling, S. & Friesike, S. (Eds.). Opening Science, The Evolving Guide on How the Internet is Changing Research, Collaboration and Scholarly Publishing.


  1. Nice view on Sidler's paper. However where do you take the idea of boundary work from? Is this an STS concept? Where would this lead to. In my opinion it is just another form of bridging.

    1. Thanks for the comment. I admittedly forgot to explain the concept of 'boundary work', because it is probably already self-evident for me.

      Anyhow, 'bondary work' is a notion coined by Thomas Gieryn. He understands boundary work as efforts to demarket the boundaries between science and non-science as a interactively constructed dividing line. In STS research this concept has also been transferred to boundaries between scientific disciplines, where highlighting differences between sciences and framing a discipline as unique is interpreted as boundary work. In that sense boundary work is quite the opposite of bridging.

      (With the link you will find his article in the 'American Sociological Review' from 1983 where he deliberates on his concept of 'boundary work')

  2. In my opinion, there cannot be a one-size-fits-all solution to "bridging" the difficulties of commmunication and collaboration between different research cultures (there are more than three, by the way)... anyways, got curious to read the Sidler-paper!

  3. Without having read the paper, I think I got a very good impression about what it deals with. I think you did an especially good job in revealing the implicit normative assumptions underlying this effort of bridging different academic disciplines and why it is a good thing. In this regard, it could be fruitful for you to do the same with the concept of interdisciplinarity. Why is it such a hype at the moment? What are the underlying ideological assumptions about interdiscplinarity?
    A problem I see in regard to bridging disciplines that neither you nor Sidler mentioned is the one of very different kinds of data. It is easy to share data about, say, soil measurements or even the raw but annonymized data of quantitative interviews, but how could we share qualitative interviews or transcripts from focus groups? To say that SSH should adopt digital tools used by the natural sciences also come with a lot of ethical problems and concerns and would also impinge on the very process of doing social scientific research.

  4. I really liked the way you discuss possible meanings for bridging and how you question in a first place the supposedly desired collective will to 'bridge' disciplines and sub-disciplines and how and for what reason each research culture has its own purpose to exist...

    Regarding interdisciplinarity or transdisciplinarity, I think it is necessary to reflect much more on what this really means: E.g. in terms of posting the correct questions and doing research in teams. In my opinion, interdisciplinarity/transdiciplinarity implies integration and linkage between two or more ways of thinking and inquiring, rather than, for example, social scientists wearing a white coat or natural scientists doing orthodox social sciences. Interdisciplinary collaboration is more than just a name... in the field and in the academy, it probably means to create intellectual and practical synergies, rather than just a matter of wearing each others uniforms for a while.

  5. In Becher's 1989 book Academic Tribes and Territories,' he contends that the "discipline" is no longer a useful delineation in a modern university, as sub-disciplines and fields take on more importance. I wonder if this atomisation, if it is true, would be more or less fostering of bridging?

    Perhaps thoroughly splintering knowledge production would show researchers that, while individual, they are very similar. Or, perhaps, it might mean that we just end up with more and more discreet units of production, making bridging all the more complicated (or even impossible).

    As a final thought, perhaps completely open science would allow the public to realise that scientists of all three stripes are just humans like everybody else, and this realisation might allow for a little more humility about their precious fields.

  6. The cultural divide into three distinct worlds seems to me a bit artificial. With the tide of multi-, trans-, inter- and other -disciplinary research one may ask whether clear boundaries between these disciplines exist at all or is it rather an evolving process with diffusion of methods and research questions taking place. As the example of Digital Humanities shows, digital technologies are not “reserved” for (natural) sciences and are rather tools that may be applied in different fields. But of course, there is some acrimony among scholars working in hermeneutic or interpretive traditions towards what is regarded hard science utilizing big and expensive machines.

  7. Yes me as well I see the problems that arise from the different ways in which we attribute epistemic and - not to forget about - economic value to research that is done in natural and technology focused sciences and the SSH. But what I really want to contend here is the Sidler's idea that bridging or closing a gap in between of those would have any positive effects on the situation. How should the SSH produce a kind of knowledge - if they still would be able to do so - that attracts a higher visibility if they adopt some methods that might be borrowed from fields with higher popularity?
    My proposition is, let's leave the SSH doing what they are good in and start reflecting the ways we value science! Don't get me wrong here, there is nothing wrong with strategies of attracting visibility, but it's just useless to try to close the gaps in between of academic tradition by equalizing them.