Cyrus Mody: Open Science’s critical figurehead

Cyrus Mody on being UM’s Open Science figurehead, an inevitable cultural shift and nanobubbles.

Cyrus Mody credits his European Research Council-funded project “Nanobubbles: how, when and why does science fail to correct itself?” with his interest in Open Science. In the project, Mody and colleagues research systemic issues allowing erroneous claims to enter and stay in the scientific record.

An example are paper mills, i.e. businesses publishing poor or fake journal papers for profit. An indicator that a publication has been produced by a paper mill are ‘tortured phrases’, mistranslated technical terms resulting from taking published papers and replacing as many words as possible with synonyms. Resulting gems range from ‘counterfeit consciousness’ instead of AI and ‘bosom peril’ instead of breast cancer. “I have seen some of the most egregious examples of creative academic misconduct and fraud…”

Mody thinks science is in a transitional period. “It’s obvious to everyone that there need to be changes – there’s a broad consensus on that, although no one is quite sure what those changes should look like.” He advocates for a more open and collaborative science. “We need a system that incentivises honest discussions about data and results in a way that’s not threatening to researchers’ careers or sense of self.”

While Mody thinks the science-in-crisis narrative is overblown, he concedes, “there are real concerns about replicability, sloppy research and juiced up claims, which openness and transparency can address.”

At the helm of a cultural shift

The cultural shift is, to an extent, already happening. For example, most Dutch and European grants stipulate publications be open access. “Globally, the Netherlands is very much a leader in this movement and UM is contributing significantly.” Among the many manifestations of Open Science at UM, every faculty has devised Open Science plans that align with the unique needs of their researchers, an FHML project is compiling an open database of toxicological properties of compounds, and a host of people are working on structurally making educational material open source.

And then there’s his role, of course: Mody was suggested as Open Science figurehead following his keynote lecture during last year’s Dies Natalis. “Because of my interdisciplinary research profile, the rector thought I would be a good representative of cross-faculty dialogue at the Dies. So I talked about different kinds of science done by universities, corporations and ordinary citizens and also about the openness required for more cooperation between all of these.” The Open Science initiative saw a lot of natural overlap and approached him.

“I’m very happy to perform this role,” says Mody, but is quick to point out that, in a literal definition of figurehead, he sees himself not as steering the ship but as fronting a campaign for Open Science. “I represent, I give talks, I offer advice when asked and attend events, but the initiative is run by the team.” Mody considers it an important accomplishment that UM has a dedicated team of young academics, who spread awareness and advise people who want to get involved.

“Globally, the Netherlands is very much a leader in this movement and UM is contributing significantly.”
Cyrus Mody

National Open Science Festival

“There’s a lot left to do obviously, but we’re making good progress in terms of personnel, activities and resources. We have people in our community who are driving things forward, but as a researcher, you can participate with a minimum of effort.” Mody is also excited about UM hosting the National Open Science Festival on 22 October 2024. “I went to last year’s edition. It was well-attended; a very cheerful, optimistic atmosphere, full of enthusiasts keen to share best practices and show the world how they made Open Science work in their environment.”

As Professor of the History of Science, Technology, and Innovation, Mody naturally has a nuanced take on Open Science. “I’m definitely an advocate for experimenting with Open Science, but I’m not an absolutist. We need to approach this critically.” He does believe that some science inherently needs to be proprietary. He does not believe that Open Science will necessarily address the crisis of confidence in science, which thrives in communities not prone to be swayed by facts alone; no amount of transparency will assuage their underlying, ideologically motivated concerns.

Pragmatic and tailored approach

Still, Mody is convinced that Open Science is a project worth pursuing. “If done right, and alongside other measures such as Recognition & Rewards, it can lead to better, more resilient science. Also, in a sense, it’s the right thing to do out of an obligation towards your fellow scientists and the public at large.” Next to a host of instrumentalist arguments for Open Science, this is probably a key ideological point: “Knowledge that is a public resource should not be enclosed for private gain.”

What we understand as science today doesn’t have a single origin but “in certain times and places the movement towards something like modern science was closely connected to the creation of the public sphere, something that happens in public debate.” At the same time, especially when tied to commerce, there has always been a need for proprietary knowledge. Mody explains that, while people have exchanged ideas in broadcast form since the late 17th century, the modern system with journals as commercial entities dates back to the late 19th century. Certain features now considered essential, like e.g. peer review, only became standard as late as 50 years ago in some disciplines.

While the transition to Open Science might seem overly optimistic to some, Mody’s historic perspective reminds us that science was never timeless or monolithic. As an endeavour, it is inherently about improvement and refinement. Open Science in itself is an experiment; its best parts, once proven, might well become the new normal.

Text: Florian Raith


Learn more about Open Science and how to incorporate it into your research. Sign up for the National Open Science Festival in Maastricht on 22 October 2024.

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