Distinguish between straight research and scientific opinion?

Summary: Maybe we should start distinguishing “straight research” from more opinionated scientific work and encourage industrial research labs to commit to protecting the former as a realistic, limited version of academic freedom in the private for-profit sector.

It seems clear enough to me that, within the field of journalism, the distinction between opinion pieces and “straight reporting” is both meaningful and valuable to draw. Both sorts of works should be pursued vigorously, even by the same journalists at the same time, but they should be distinguished (e.g., by being placed in different sections of a newspaper, or being explicitly labeled “opinion”, etc.) and held to different standards.In my opinion it’s unfortunate that this distinction has been partially eroded in recent years and that some thoughtful people have even argued it’s meaningless and should be dropped. That’s not the subject of this blog post, though.a   This is true even though there is of course a continuum between these categories, and it’s infeasible to precisely quantify the axis. (That said, I’d like to see more serious philosophical attempts to identify actionable principles for drawing this distinction more reliably and transparently.)

It’s easy for idealistic outsiders to get the impression that all of respectable scientific research is analogous to straight reporting rather than opinion, but just about any researcher will tell you that some articles are closer than other articles to the opinion category; that’s not to say it’s bad or unscientific, just that such articles go further in the direction of speculative interpretation and selective highlighting of certain pieces of evidence, and are often motivated by normative claims (“this area is more fruitful research avenue than my colleagues believe”, “this evidence implies the government should adopt a certain policy”, etc.). Let’s call this “scientific opinion”, as opposed to “straight research”, even though we again concede that the distinction is fuzzy.

For the most part, there isn’t a distinction in scientific journal between these types of articles (with some notable exceptions, especially in certain splashy scientific magazines that have articles that resemble newspaper columns). Rather, editors and referees seem to enforce a certain level of objectivity for all articles, and this usually takes the form of (1) an objective sounding voice and (2) outright rejection of articles that are too opinion-y. I mostly think this works fine, although the clear need for some scientific opinion writing means that (a) editors and referees allow some opinion-y type stuff without attempts to explicitly distinguish it from straight research and (b) some scientific opinion discussion that is quite influential ends up getting unfortunately relegated to blogs and in-person discussion.

In recent news, a prominent research scientist got fired from an industry lab for writing a scientific article that made her employer look bad. Lots of folks reasonably (though not necessarily persuasively) argue either that (i) corporations should always support their internal research even when it makes them look bad or that (ii) it’s naive to think that corporation could allow this, so attempt to force them to will just induce them to do less research in the future.

I wonder if constructive progress could be made by relying on the distinction between straight research and scientific opinion. My second-hand impression of the article prompting the current dispute is that it was less a follow-your-nose, just-the-facts-ma’am investigation, and more a scientific opinion piece. I have not read the actual work, but for the purposes of this post it actually doesn’t matter because I just want to consider the general possibility of using this distinction. So for the sake of argument, let’s consider a hypothetical situation where an industry researcher wants to publish an article that makes her employer look bad and the article is well characterized as scientific opinion, i.e., is scientifically sound (no falsehoods, rigorous, etc.) but also clearly displaying aspects of opinion (obviously motivated by normative claims rather than just scientific curiosity, emphasizes evidence on one side, and somewhat speculative).

In journalism, most people agree that opinion pieces are very useful and should exist, but also that employees can’t write anti-employer editorials in the New York Times while reasonably demanding that their employer keep paying them. (A few folks will reject this latter claim, but I think they can only reasonably do so by endorsing a very strong version of the principle of freedom of speech, going beyond even John Stuart Mill.) It seems then that you might be able to protect an important subset of research freedom in industrial labs by establishing a norm that straight research should be shielded from being vetoed from above, while corporate leaders are permitted to exercise control on scientific opinion. If this could be achieved, outsiders could naturally put a bit more faith in straight research from industry while remaining appropriately skeptical of scientific opinion pieces that they generate.

Of course, if the decision about whether any given article was an opinion piece were decided in-house by the company, it would be very hard to trust, and also very hard to make transparent without destroying the company’s ability to meaningfully protect itself from bad PR. Therefore, you could consider an outside arbiter (e.g., certain independent scientific journals) who would certify articles as straight research through a review process that uses publicly-stated principles but that, necessarily, did not release the research article publicly until after it had been certified in this way. (This is not unusually secretive; journal already reject articles without publicly explaining why.) If companies were convinced that this process was at least sort of reliable and objective, they might publicly commit to never vetoing straight research, as certified by the outsider arbiter, both as a way to establish trust in the public and as a way to attract research talent by credibly committing to a limited form of academic freedom.

If you think that industry research currently enjoys, or could plausibly achieve, university levels of freedom when it comes to any results that make the employer look bad, then you would of course see this proposal as a step backwards. However, it seems clear to me that corporate leaders have always had a veto on sufficiently unpalatable research results, and that if they were somehow forced to relinquish this power (due to public opinion), the net result would simply be them choosing to not fund research that had a chance of turning out badly for them. Rather, the idea considered here is just to somewhat constrain the leadership veto and, importantly, making it more principled and transparent.

[Added:] Of course, this proposal doesn’t fix all conflicts between research and academic freedom. Some straight research will make a company look clearly bad without any need for speculation or unusual emphasis. But I think this proposal is plausibly an improvement over the status quo because (1) opinion is more likely to generate bad PR but (2) straight research is “less replaceable” in the sense that outsiders will have an easier time writing critical opinion pieces if they have access to straight research from insiders.

[I thank Dylan Hadfield-Menell and Graeme Smith for conversation that informed this post.]

Footnotes

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  1. In my opinion it’s unfortunate that this distinction has been partially eroded in recent years and that some thoughtful people have even argued it’s meaningless and should be dropped. That’s not the subject of this blog post, though.
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