Scientific Sharing: Communism and the Social Contract

In Thomas Boyer-Kassem, Conor Mayo-Wilson and Michael Weisberg (eds.) Scientific Collaboration and Collective Knowledge, Oxford University Press, 2017

Abstract: Research programs regularly compete to achieve the same goal, such as the discovery of the structure of DNA or the construction of a TEA laser. The more the competing programs share information, the faster the goal is likely to be reached, to society's benefit. But the "priority rule"—the scientific norm mandating that the first program to reach the goal in question receive all the credit for the achievement—provides a powerful disincentive for programs to share information. How, then, is the clash between social and self interest resolved in scientific practice? This paper investigates what Robert Merton called science's "communist" norm, which mandates universal sharing of knowledge, and uses mathematical models of discovery to argue that a communist regime may be on the whole advantageous and fair to all parties, and so might be implemented by a social contract that all scientists would be willing to sign.

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