Data Ethics Club discusses “#bropenscience is broken science” (17th March 21)#

What’s this?

This is summary of Wednesday 17th March’s Data Ethics Club discussion, where we spoke and wrote about the paper #bropenscience is broken science by Kirstie Whitaker and Olivia Guest.

The summary was written by Natalie Thurlby, who tried to synthesise everyone’s contributions to this document and the discussion. “We” = “someone at Data Ethics Club”. Nina Di Cara helped with a final edit and an extra paragraph.

We know the bro#

Those of us who are within or adjacent to the Open Science and tech communities recognised the bro (and sadly the bro within), in all genders. For example centring socialisation around beer or “joking” about why some piece of software is terrible. Over all, there seemed to be some hope for redemption for this flavour of bro, with a few tales of improvement. Despite the name, we felt that being a bro isn’t necessarily about masculine versus feminine, but about naming your viewpoint as The One Way To Do Things; about superiority for an elite group, as this article suggests with respect to bros in computer science. This is borne out by other examples of dismissive and combative attitudes and in Open Science.

It’s bros all the way down#

Whether attendees were inside of, familar with, or unfamiliar with, the Open Science community, many said #bropenscience reminded them of the wider problems of academia. We see it when someone makes a derisive “more of a comment than a question” in a conference Q+A, when reviewer number 2 rears their ugly head, in tech bro hackathons, and in rude comments about other disciplines. This isn’t exactly new: in the 1930s, Ernest Rutherford claimed you can put science in two categories “physics and stamp-collecting” :face_with_rolling_eyes:

The evolution of bros#

Systemic broblems#

Where does this attitude come from? In academia more widely, we mentioned the competitive nature of the academic jobs market in the scramble for limited funding, the trope of PI “rockstars” :face_vomiting: single-handedly making discoveries, and the power of that role. Incentives are not set up to celebrate community science, e.g. first author papers count for more. In the USA, fraternities particularly nurture this attitude, but other countries certainly seem to manufacture their own brand, too. A lack of diversity at the top seems to cement it.

These problems are not unique to Open Science, but it doesn’t mean that Open Science doesn’t need do something about it. There has been a very timely reminder of this in curate science’s Open Science league table and the subsequent revelation that the league table was designed to punish people on purpose and was created by someone who is not very nice.

The source?#

In Open Science in particular, a generous intepretation is that founders developed an aggressive debating style because they started out punching up against established professors. Some of whom might have made anti-Open-Science arguments that truly were weak excuses or defensive reactions. Even if this is true, it’s clear that there is a need to outgrow this behaviour now. Otherwise brutal honesty comes across as more of an interest in brutality than honesty.

Many of us also recognised the particular brand of ‘you need to struggle because I did’, that shrugs off community support efforts and prioritises individual success. Do people fear that increasing the accessibility of complex things they have mastered makes them less unique, special and superior (also known as ‘employable’ and ‘fundable’ in a competitive market)?

A missed opportunity#

People who were drawn to Open Science because of its potential to upend some of the perverse power structures in academia (for example by making sure people get credit for their work) find this attitude of superiority and judgement not just rude and impractical, but also deeply disappointing. If Open Science is about showing-off who has the resources to buy in the most fully, then it just mirrors the system they were hoping to dismantle.

Combating bropen science: keeping the honesty, and losing the brutality#

We find the judgy attitude of some parts of the Open Science movement to be shortsighted and impractical. Even though bros may want to improve science or think they are helping, they are often getting in the way of good work by putting others off. We like that the paper gave practical advice on how to address rudeness and create a welcoming community and found the buffet of open science idea is particularly ~~useful~~ delicious. We recognise that to improve things there a need to be opinionated, but it is possible to be opinionated and kind. Similarly, criticism can have a place, but it is also necessary to listen to others (particularly in less powerful positions) when they tell you that there are barriers, and consider how you can lower them.

While we each have an opportunity to be welcoming, we also recognise that there are prominent people in certain communities who have a lot of power in directing the tone of dicussions and managing the behaviour of others. These people have an important part to play if we are looking for wider change.

Combating bropen science systemically#

We also discussed how insecure working conditions for researchers could contribute to the nastiness that is sometimes present in academia. Could more permanent contracts help, for example through pooled postdoc positions, like Research Software Engineers can be? We also discussed making science generally more diverse. There are some examples of good programmes in this space, for example Black Girls Code and Widening Participation Internships. Diversity isn’t just a pipeline problem, though, there are other barriers to diversity that must be addressed for example childcare provision, and hiring policies.


At the end of the session, we voted:

  • 100% (18/18) people would recommend this content for a discussion group.

  • 94% (17/18) people would recommend this content to a colleague.


Note: this is not a full list of attendees, only those who felt comfortable sharing their names.

Name, Affiliation, GitHub, Twitter

  • Natalie Thurlby, University of Bristol, NatalieThurlby, @StatalieT

  • Nina Di Cara, University of Bristol, (GH/:bird:) ninadicara

  • Huw Day, University of Bristol, Maths PhDoer

  • Vanessa Hanschke, University of Bristol, Interactive AI PhD

  • Graham Lee, University of Oxford, iamleeg oxfordRSE

  • Roman Shkunov, University of Bristol Maths/CS student

  • Christina Hitrova, PhD student, Technical University of Munich, @C_Hitrova

  • Ruth Drysdale Jisc

  • Paul Lee, investment world, @pclee27,

  • Kate Drax, University of Bristol, PhD candidate in metaresearch, @katiedrax-

  • Paul Stevens, sociology student at University of Bristol

  • Al Tanner • Research Software Engineer @ JGI Bristol, UK • epidemiology and digital footprints :hibiscus: Github @altanner • Twitter @alastairtanner

  • Matthew West - University of Exeter RSE group

  • Sergio Araujo-Estrada, University of Bristol, Post-Doc Aero. Eng.

  • Robin Taylor @badgermind retired from insurance and financial risk management, feels learning mathematics and science should be more open

  • Eanes T. Pereira, Computer Science, UFCG (Brazil), LinkedIn: e.t.pereira

  • Valerio Maggio, SRA @ University of Bristol, GH/:bird:: @leriomaggio

  • Adriano Winterton, PhD candidate at UiO in biological psychiatry @fuyu00, :bird: @fuyu00

  • Robin Dasler, research software product manager (currently unaffiliated)

  • Kamilla ‘Milli’ Wells, RPA at Australian federal agency, previously QUT

  • Tessa Darbyshire, Scientific Editor, Patterns, Cell Press: @tdarbyshire