Ep. #42: Economies of Openness: Ros Attenborough on cultures of trust, exclusion & generosity in STS

“All of these questions deserve…just that little bit extra thought about what would openness look like for my study and in my discipline? What would it achieve? What effects would it have? And you know that when you have research interview data it’s never going to be as simple as just ‘publishing it on the internet’. There are all the ethical considerations” Subscribe on Android

In episode 6 of our STS season, Rosalind Attenborough, who is currently completing her PhD at the Science, Technology and Innovation Studies centre at The University of Edinburgh, talks with our own Julia Brown. Having done her undergraduate training at the ANU, Ros worked for PLoS journals, before retraining in the social studies of science at University College London and then University of Edinburgh. Since 2015, she has been researching how scientists view the idea of scientific openness, which she has explored through numerous interviews with scientists, and policymakers and advocates.

As you are about to hear, the meaning of openness in science is multidimensional and is becoming an increasingly critical topic. Openness in science can refer to open access publishing, open methods and data, and interpersonal openness. Ros explains what has driven open access policy changes in the UK in particular, the funding inequality this produces, and cultures of value and trust economies in science. Ros encourages us to consider the question of openness in ethnographic methods. As a case study of cultural influences on openness, Ros and Julia contemplate the CRISPR-baby scandal.

DISCLAIMER: Ros, nor Julia, know much about the technicalities of the CRISPR case, they were merely discussing it as a way into thinking about cultural differences in value when it comes to ethical codes of scientific conduct. (See links below for an explanation of CRISPR)



“How [do] scientists speak about the work that’s kind of, in a way, a bit vulnerable because they haven’t yet published it and perhaps they haven’t even yet got funding to pursue it. So these ideas [that scientists have] are spoken of as being really valuable and potentially it’s risky to share ideas with other scientists when there’s a kind of prestige economy going on, where scientists are competing for grants and they’re competing for prestigious publications… But a good proportion of the scientists I spoke to framed this… interpersonal openness as really one of the most valuable things about doing science. This idea that by talking to your colleagues at this early stage, you can get really useful feedback.”

“I think those norms [of scientific practice] are quite important in the sense that they do speak to ideals that are circulating in the culture of science, and I think still do circulate in institutions, like [the] Royal Society in the UK will talk about how openness has been important to science for hundreds of years… does this new version of openness, which we see in the last 20 years, is that related to this older notion of openness?”

“Sometimes the assumption in an open science context is that more is always better and so if you can document every exact process that occurs in an online way, and maybe in a live way, that’s going to make your research more accountable, and more reliable and all of these things. But this is where context comes in because I think openness has a different purpose in different contexts, and trust is a really important issue here. so [is] the question of why you are being open.”

(Julia) “[In anthropology] I can’t help but think that people want to represent their participants in their best light… they don’t want to say things that their participants wouldn’t be pleased about. But that puts a bias on research potentially, doesn’t it?”

“There really isn’t necessarily a system of accountability because scientists are not all part of … a single, professional body about good practice in science. So if you think someone’s done something wrong, what we would do as publishers – kind of overseers of such processes – but we had no power to say whether someone had done something wrong or not… we would alert an institution that something might have happened”

“These spaces where people trust each other definitely have an important function, but there are other potential downsides. For example, what happens outside those circles of trust? Who’s included, and who isn’t included? … Sometimes when you have these very personal private conversations, it’s who exactly is a part of them and how they operate influences the function of that openness between people. This also means…there are people outside the circle of trust, so that could operate to reinforce inequalities in certain ways.”


Merton, R. K. (1973). The Sociology of Science: Theoretical and Empirical Investigations. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

For an overview about ‘open access’ and the movement behind it, give this a read:

And if you’d like a quick intro to CRISPR, Live Science has a nice guide:


This anthropology podcast is supported by the Australian Anthropological Society, the ANU’s College of Asia and the Pacific and College of Arts and Social Sciences, and the Australian Centre for the Public Awareness of Science, and is produced in collaboration with the American Anthropological Association.

If you’d like to support The Familiar Strange, head over to our Patreon page: https://www.patreon.com/thefamiliarstrange

Music by Pete Dabro: dabro1.bandcamp.com
Shownotes by Julia Brown and Deanna Catto

[Feature image ‘The Apothecary’ by Harlow Heslop:
Image ‘One World – One Web’ by Paul Downey:

Image ‘CRISPR cas9’ but NIH Image Gallery:

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