The most popular sites across the internet make most (all?) of their money from advertising. This definitely holds true for science websites as well. Scientific publications like Cell, Nature, and Science help alleviate publication costs through advertising and their sites are no different. Why can’t open notebooks do the same? What scientist wouldn’t love to be able to be self funded through advertising?
Of course we’d have to make an assumption or two first. Let’s assume an open notebook could generate enough traffic to support advertising. Then let’s assume there are enough clicks per day to generate some ad revenue. Of course there are many different kinds of advertising support (banner ads, sponsered advertising, etc) but ultimately ad revenue is generated because of traffic. Websites with no traffic don’t make money and no one wants to advertise on a site no one will visit.
If an open notebook can support any kind of advertising, then should an open notebook be allowed to post ads? I asked myself, Koch (my advisor), and Alan Marnett (BenchFly CEO and great friend) these questions, and of course by the nature of the title of this post I’m asking anyone who reads this too.
All of us came up with basically the same response, “Yes.” But we all agreed that there are some ethics there that has not been approached yet (after all open notebook science is very new and only so many people are doing it). These ethics make the situation very interesting and could be a dissertation all by itself, just not mine (LOL!).
I’ve been blogging for a few years now and about a year ago I launched Google Adsense on my personal blog. The ads on that site are not selected by me, but by Google, and are selected based on how well they match my content (lots of ads for Groupon Albuquerque) and also probably based on user data as well (what’s in your cookies and cache). If I launched something similar on this site, the ads would be all subject to Google’s discretion while I would have basic editing rights (no porno ads). With that regards I don’t think there would be many problems ethically speaking.
Now sponsored advertising is a bit trickier and can blur the ethics. Alan mentioned that sponsorship can come in several varieties (he pointed out guest blog posts and product reviews as some options). If a notebook goes this route, the most obvious issue would be how would visitors know that results and data aren’t skewed by the sponsorship? For example how would anyone know that a company didn’t pay you to publish that you achieved certain positive results? Obviously they don’t, but the nature of open notebook science fundamentally is transparency in results. So if you aren’t publishing your data regularly you aren’t really doing open notebook science (there are degrees of this which I’ll discuss another time).
The key Alan mentioned, and that I thought about, was that the advertising would have to be transparent. In his words:
You have to let your audience know what they’re getting – that way, if they have a problem with it, they can make the choice either to come back or not. But if you mislead people, it never ends well when the truth comes out. [sic]
And I completely agree with him. Especially with regards to open notebook science. When you are publishing data openly you need to make sure your data is clean otherwise you will develop a negative reputation quickly. So advertising should be no different. If you aren’t transparent about what exactly is being funded by advertising your reputation as a scientist could be in jeopardy.
There is another aspect of advertising that should be taken into consideration: does advertising conflict with grants and could it count as profiting? While I have never written a major grant proposal and have not read any guidelines related to grant submission, I could see potential funding sources having an issue with advertising in research. So this question is something to think very deeply about.
I personally feel like advertising is more like a source of funding. The money wouldn’t go into my pocket, but would go to fund the notebook (server fees, cloud services, overhead, etc) or even to fund my research. Once again transparency is key here. I think other scientists wouldn’t have much of a problem if I fully disclosed what the money was being used for (itemized budget that is stored on Google Docs, perhaps). Perhaps sponsoring companies would also be more comfortable with this approach too (not to mention more giving) if there was budgetary disclosure.
With open science and open notebook science in particular being such a new endeavor for the scientific community, there are a lot of unbreached ethical concerns here. I won’t even pretend to have discussed them in full here as I’m sure there are even more topics that I haven’t even thought of. I know being from a young startup lab that the ability to advertise and generate even meager funds (like $100 a year) would be invaluable to my research, but I’m also aware of the ethical concerns that this could produce. I love open notebook science too much to destroy the practice before it gets off the ground, which is why I’m opening this topic up for debate. Let me know your thoughts in the comments below (open to everyone) and head over to BenchFly to participate in a poll regarding this very topic.