Saturday, March 31, 2018

Why does transparency matter?

I feel this is post is a bit like extolling the value of motherhood. But it does need to be said again and again in a range of contexts. Transparency is relevant in science and universities in many different ways
  • Provide enough information in a paper (or its supplementary material) so that others can reproduce your results.
  • Be honest about the strengths and weaknesses of any method.
  • Provide estimates of the uncertainty of any result.
  • Faculty and institutions need to provide Ph.D students and postdocs with realistic information about their future job prospects within academia. [In particular, the prospect of a tenured faculty position at a research university is highly unlikely].
  • When people are being asked to evaluate something [a job applicant, a grant application, a commercial venture, a new technology, ...] they need to be provided enough information to make a well-informed decision.
  • Make minutes of committee meetings, annual reports,  freely and easily available.
  • Make salaries and benefits of senior management publically available.
  • If someone is affected by a decision they should be informed of the basis of that decision.
My view is it always better to provide too much information rather than little. Due to the existence of the internet it is very easy to make information available (either publically or in a password protected site) for those who are interested.

I am increasingly concerned how individuals and institutions hide behind excuses such as intellectual property, commercial-in-confidence issues, legal action, personnel matters, non-disclosure agreements, internal budgetary matters, .... to justify a lack of transparency.
I am not saying that there is no role for these considerations, just that they are invoked way too often.

When people and institutions are not transparent, it is natural for others to
  • suspect something is being hidden [corruption, mismanagement, ...]
  • lose confidence, respect or trust in the non-transparent parties
What do you think?
Are there areas of science and universities that justify greater transparency?


  1. The fourth bullet on Faculty ... job prospect in academia in your post. This point has been well dealt here in the following articles.

    A trend toward transparency for Ph.D. career outcomes? By Beryl Lieff Benderly Mar. 7, 2018.

    Academia's Crooked Money Trail
    By Beryl Lieff BenderlyJan. 6, 2012

    1. Thanks for the links.

      The last one is particularly valuable and I recommend to readers. It reviews a book by an economist about how the skewed incentives in academia skew science and job options for Ph.D graduates.

  2. Be honest about strengths and weakness...

    In this hypercompetitive academic environment, many skip weakness. In fact its like not reporting negative results from an experiment. In the 1950's there were Unis in US esp the good ones where research students would note down all results from an an experiment. In the good old days, a Prof when writing a recommendation letter used to write about strength and weakness of his candidate. Now with this ugly competition , there is no weakness at all reported for the student whom he wants to get into academia.

    1. Thanks for the helpful comment.

      You have a good point about reference letters. I had not thought about that. Ones from the USA can be particularly " inflated" and unhelpful.