On gaining tenure as an open scientist

Written by: C. Titus Brown

Primary Source: Living in an Ivory Basement

On December 10th, 2014, I was formally awarded tenure at UC Davis, where I will start as an Associate Professor in the School of Veterinary Medicine on January 5th, 2015. In my research statement for my job application, I wrote:

Open science and scientific reproducibility: I am a strong advocate of open science, open source, open data, open access, and the use of social media in research as a way to advance research more broadly.

I’ve been an advocate of “open” for decades, and since becoming an Assistant Professor at Michigan State University in spring 2008, I have explored a variety of approaches to doing science more openly:

While being open, I achieved several career milestones, including publishing several senior author papers, graduating several doctoral students, giving an invited talk at a Gordon Conference, keynoting several international conferences, having several highly ranked universities recruit me, getting an NIH R01 (and overall bringing in more than $2m in grants while at MSU), getting recruited and hired at an Associate Professor level, gaining tenure, and becoming a Moore Investigator with sustained medium-term funding. There are certainly many more successful people than me out there, but I personally don’t know what else I could wish for – my plate is full and I’m pursuing research I believe to be important.

Here are some things I’ve observed over the years.

It is possible to achieve some measure of traditional success while being open. Grants; publications; tenure. ’nuff said.

Being open has become an increasingly positive driver of my career. Over the years, the benefit of openness has become increasingly obvious. I can’t actually point to many negatives – the biggest specific problem I saw was that various people in my administrative chain at MSU didn’t understand why I was pursuing open, but it’s not clear that that had any negative consequences on my career. Meanwhile, thousands of people are using our software, I have a reasonably large and very enthusiastic blog and Twitter following, a number of papers with lots of citations, more invitations to speak than I can take, and excellent applications for grad student and postdoc positions.

My current research program developed independently of open. I think I would have been doing approximately the same things at a research level whether or not I had been so open about it. (With my Moore award, that’s changing in the future.) In particular, some grant awards resulted from connections made through my blog, but most did not.

Open is not the point, and maybe shouldn’t be. I would still rather hire an excellent closed scientist than a mediocre open scientist. But I would definitely push hiring an excellent open scientist over an excellent closed scientist. In my case, Davis definitely didn’t hire me because I was an open scientist; they hired me because they liked my research and training efforts, and because there was a need for them at Davis. Open simply didn’t figure in.

Some people will argue that your time is better spent elsewhere… Of the six or so letters evaluating my tenure case at Davis, I reportedly had one letter that was rather negative and argued that I was not living up to my potential. My chair agreed with my suspicion that one of the reasons for this backhanded compliment was the author of the letter felt I was wasting my time by investing in social media, open science, and reproducible research.

…but people can always find a reason to criticize you. There are very few science faculty who I think are doing everything right, and even fewer to whom I wouldn’t offer friendly advice if asked. Certainly, If I wanted to tear someone down I could probably do so. The majority of my tenure letter writers, the entirety of my new department, and (presumably) the rest of the hierarchy at Davis all strongly supported my tenure case.

Most of my colleagues have been very supportive. Virtually none of the active research faculty in my departments at MSU question the need for change, or the utility of open science/access/source/data. However, they do get stuck on the details of how to incentivize, drive, and implement open science. The majority of negative or “WTF?” comments I’ve received have been from a subset of administrators; my most charitable perspective on this is that administrators are generally much more concerned with policy and incentives than individual faculty, and consequently weight the obstacles higher than the opportunities.

Open science will (eventually) win out in basic research… There are too many reasons for granting agencies to support open science for science to remain closed, absent significant monetary drivers for it to remain closed.

…but there’s a fundamental asymmetry in closed vs open that’s retarding progress towards open, and scientific progress more broadly. A closed scientist can make use of preprints, open source and open data; an open scientist cannot make use of closed science products until they are published. See: Prisoner’s Dilemma. I will have more to say on this over the next years…

By remaining so closed, science is ignoring the role of serendipity in progress. I regularly read articles bemoaning the cost of openness, and I think many of these people are choosing the somewhat certain (but suboptimal) consequences of being closed over the insecurity of the uncertain (but potentially very positive) consequences of being open. As scientific funding becomes every more stringent and competitiveness grows, the advantages of being conservative will evaporate for all but the academic 1%. (As Shirley Tilghman says, for many “who have succeeded in the system, there appears to be little to be gained from messing with it”. That’s going to change quickly as the data science asteroid hits science, among other things; I expect to see fairly rapid turnover in that 1%.)

Open science needs more practitioners. A few years back I made a conscious decisions to be less of a cheerleader and more of a practitioner. I enjoy doing science, and I enjoy talking about it, and I think the experiments we do in my lab on how to promulgate and accelerate our science through openness are just as important as the policy making, the grant funding, the infrastructure building, and yes, the publicity and cheerleading that is going on. We need it all!

Scientific culture is generational; change will come, but slowly. Most senior scientists (the ones who sit on editorial boards, review panels, and tenure committees) are already overwhelmed and are unlikely to change — as Mike Eisen says, “the publishing behavior of most established scientists has proven […] to be beyond amendment.” But there’s hope; here’s a great quote in the Atlantic article, from Virginia Barbour:

“There’s a generation of scientists who are running labs and running tenure committees who were brought up on a very different system” said Barbour. “I have huge hopes on the generation that’s coming up, because they’re a generation built on openness and availability, and for a lot of things we’re talking about it may well take a generational change. It may not be until those people are in positions of authority that things will really change,” she said.



Thanks to Tracy Teal for reading and commenting on a draft of this post!

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C. Titus Brown
C. Titus Brown is an assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering and the Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics. He earned his PhD ('06) in developmental molecular biology from the California Institute of Technology. Brown is director of the laboratory for Genomics, Evolution, and Development (GED) at Michigan State University. He is a member of the Python Software Foundation and an active contributor to the open source software community. His research interests include computational biology, bioinformatics, open source software development, and software engineering.