Sunday, July 11, 2010

Secrecy in Astronomy and the Open Science Ratchet

Probably because of the visibility of the GalaxyZoo project, I think several of my colleagues and I have been under the impression that astronomy is a somewhat more open field than chemistry or molecular biology. It was easy to rationalize such a position because patents are not an issue, as they clearly are in fields which rely more on invention than discovery. However, after reading "The Case for Pluto" by Alan Boyle, I am left with a much different impression.

This book does an excellent job of covering the recent debate over Pluto's designation as a true planet. A key trigger for this debate has been the discovery of dwarf planets with sizes very close to that of Pluto. However, these discoveries did not occur without controversy.

The story of the controversy regarding the discovery of Haumea is a particularly good example (starts on p. 108 of the book - a good summary also on Wikipedia). Starting in December 2004 Michael Brown at Caltech discovered a series of new dwarf planets. Instead of immediately reporting his team's discoveries, he worked in secrecy until July 20, 2005 when he posted an online abstract indicating the discoveries would be announced at a conference that September. However, on July 27, 2005 a Spanish team led by José Luis Ortiz Moreno filed a claim with the Minor Planet Center for priority in discovering one of these dwarf planets. This forced Brown's hand in disclosing his team's other discoveries within days - much sooner than he had anticipated.

Apparently this stirred up a great controversy in the community and officially no name was associated with the discovery, although the Spanish team's telescope at Sierra Nevada Observatory was recognized as the location of the discovery. However, Brown was allowed to select the name Haumea for the dwarf planet.

Even though the Minor Planet Center accepted Moreno's submission, most reports seem to side with Brown. The main argument is no less than academic fraud on Moreno's part because he accessed public telescope logs and found some of Brown's data. It was as simple as Googling the identifier that Brown inserted in his public abstract.

If Moreno had hacked into a private computer from Brown's team I can understand fraud. But is it fraud to access public databases? We chemists do that all the time - reading abstracts from upcoming conferences to try to glean what our competitors are up to. That hasn't stopped anyone from submitting a paper or patent.

Secrecy only works if everyone competing follows the same rules. If there is a rule that planet discoveries must be made at conferences or by formal publication then this could not have happened. Moreno's submission to the Minor Planet Center should have been rejected if such a rule existed. If there is a rule that telescope logs should not be accessed then why make them public and indexed on Google?

Now there may exist field specific conventions. I don't know what they are in the case of discoveries such as these but here is an interesting quote from Michael Brown's Wikipedia page:
When asked about this online activity, Ortiz responded with an email to Brown that suggested Brown was at fault for "hiding objects," and said that "the only reason why we are now exchanging e-mail is because you did not report your object."[3] Brown says that this statement by Ortiz contradicts the accepted scientific practice of analyzing one's research until one is satisfied that it is accurate, then submitting it to peer review prior to any public announcement. However, the MPC only needs precise enough orbit determination on the object in order to provide discovery credit, and Ortiz et al. not only provided the orbit, but "precovery" images of the body in 1957 plates.
It seems to me that there is a clash of what are the conventions in the field. Certainly the Minor Planet Center did not recognize the convention of peer review before public disclosure. They only required sufficient proof for the discovery.

One way to look at this story is that Moreno acted more openly than Brown by disclosing information before peer review. This action forced Brown to disclose scientific results much more quickly than he had anticipated.

In a sense this is a type of Open Science Ratchet. The actions of scientists that are most open set the pace for everyone else working on that particular project, regardless of their views on how secretive science should be.

Imagine how the scenario would have played out if one of the groups had used an Open Notebook. On December 28, 2004 everyone with a stake in the search for planets would have had the opportunity to know that a very significant find had been made. There were still details to work out - and the Brown group might not be the first to do all the calculations to completely characterize the discovery. Certainly it would affect what other researchers did - even if they were completely opposed to the concept of Open Science.

Essentially secrecy in this context is an all-or-nothing gamble. Everyone is free to not disclose their work until after peer reviewed publication. In some cases the discoverer will get full credit for the discovery and the complete analysis. But in other cases another group working in parallel will publish first and leave nothing to claim.

As scientists become more open, it is likely that their ability to claim sole priority for all aspects of a discovery will be reduced. However, they will retain priority for the observations and calculations that they made first.

The more open the science, the faster it happens. And because of the Open Science Ratchet, a few Open Scientists scattered across various fields could have a larger hand than expected in speeding up science.

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