How does the word ‘open’ modify terms such as ‘data’, ‘source’ ‘access’ and ‘science’? What is openness actually doing to these terms? This seems to be a subject of continual debate on social media, at conferences and in the scholarly literature. For the most part, it seems that the debate has moved on from the idea that there can be a strict definition of open access, data, etc. — openness thus implies a degree of flexibility of definition and practice. Yet does this fluidity or ambiguity mean that we would be better abandoning terms such as ‘open science’ altogether?

For the psychologist Tal Yarkoni, the answer to this question is yes. His recent post ‘I hate open science’ explains why he no longer refers to himself as an open scientist and instead chooses terms that he feels convey his practice with more specificity:

In most instances, “open science” can be seamlessly replaced with something like “reproducibility”, “transparency”, “data sharing”, “being welcoming”, and so on. It’s a low-effort move, and the main effect of making the switch is that other people will have a clearer understanding of what you mean, and may be less inclined to argue with you about it.

For Yarkoni, the ambiguity of ‘open science’ causes more problems than it solves. People refer to so many practices under the umbrella of open science that it no longer signifies anything useful. This, he argues, is ‘bad politics’ because it both leads to rifts within the movement — as there is no consensus on what the movement even stands for — and does not actually explain to newcomers what good open science practice is and how they can get involved.

Although I certainly agree that open science carries with it a degree of ambiguity (and I’ve argued something similar elsewhere), I actually disagree with what Yarkoni argues follows from this. Firstly, the problem with replacing a general concept of ‘open science’ with the more specific concepts of ‘“reproducibility”, “transparency”, “data sharing”, “being welcoming”’ is that these terms are subject to exactly the same blind spots that Yarkoni argues open science suffers from. How, for example, would ‘transparent science’ differ from open science? What does a science of ‘being welcoming’ look like in practice? All the concepts Yarkoni references carry with them the same kind of ambiguity when used in a general sense. Like the term ‘open science’, they need to be explained with a degree of specificity in order to carry any meaning.

This first point is all the more important in light of Yarkoni’s second point that the ambiguity of open science is itself bad politics. Using a general term as a cover-all for a disparate (often conflicting) set of values and practices is bad, Yarkoni argues, because it both leads to rifts within the movement and works against the possibility of enrolling new participants to the cause (in the absence of any positive identity politics to which they can subscribe). If you want to change people’s behaviours towards best practice, then, you need a coherent basis on which to do this. This is why Yarkoni asks for a return to specificity of language that defines what best practice looks like.

Putting aside the fact that many of the terms Yarkoni employs do lack the kind of consensus or specificity he desires, it simply seems wrong to argue that the ambiguity of open science is bad politics, when it is in fact quite the opposite. It is exactly the ambiguity of the term ‘open science’ that has allowed such divergent groups to rally around and promote it at policy levels, in different disciplines, and at various fora. Open science feels good to newcomers, even if there is no consensus about what it is, in a different way to concepts with more specificity (but mundanity). This is exactly why it is a highly successful movement within academia, even though this success has led to increasing amounts of conflict about what openness actually is (alongside awkward policy interventions, particularly with respect to open access).

The problem arises when open science is used as a replacement for a politics, as if sharing code, data and papers is a specifically defined political position rather than reflective of a range of individual politics in different situations. Open science is not necessarily (overtly) political, but it is also not neutral and thus requires different tactics and strategies if it is to be reframed as politically progressive or emancipatory. This is what groups such as the Radical Open Access Collective are trying to do by tapping into support for the movement from a particular position. It is easier to do this with a recognisable term such as open science, rather than having to invent terminology and build awareness from scratch.

So while I agree that ‘open science’ is vague and ambiguous, its primary benefit is actually ‘political’ in the sense of instigating change through a movement (even if this movement is comprised of a range of different positions from across the political spectrum.). But Yarkoni is correct to question whether the term has run its course as denoting anything helpful for people dealing in specifics. The problem is, I’m not sure that any terminology could ever convey the desired specificity or consensus while still appealing to a broad range of people.