Ethical norms change over time. What once was widely regarded as wrong can come to be regarded as acceptable, admirable, or even obligatory. And what was one widely regarded as acceptable, admirable, or even obligatory can come to be regarded as wrong. Norms can change so much that it becomes difficult to imagine how the old norms could ever have been seen as ok.
Hence my question: what currently widespread norms regarding the proper conduct or teaching of science will change dramatically in the next few decades?
That’s an interesting timescale to consider because it’s roughly the timescale for complete turnover of the scientific community. It’s the amount of time needed for every current scientist to be replaced by a new one, and so it’s the timescale on which norms can change even if nobody ever changes their mind as to what’s ethical. Of course, norms can change much faster if people change their minds about them.
Data sharing is an obvious one. Indeed, I’d say that norm already has shifted (within less than a decade!) It used to be ok to keep your data to yourself forever. Now it’s not ok, absent some special circumstance like the need to maintain confidentiality.
Experimentation on captive animals is another obvious one, at least for the animals most closely related to humans. It’s my impression that research on captive chimpanzees is on the way out due to changing norms of how to treat animals.
Spousal hiring is another one, though that’s more of an academic norm than a specifically scientific norm. Spousal hiring used to be considered nepotism and was widely frowned upon (or so I’ve heard; someone more senior than me correct me if I’m wrong on this!) Nowadays colleges and universities routinely consider requests for spousal hires from the faculty they hire, to the point where they’ve started saying as much in job adverts. (UPDATE: to clarify, I’m not saying that all colleges and universities now routinely grant all requests for spousal hires! Because they don’t. All I’m saying is that, these days, it’s much less common than it used to be for colleges and universities to refuse to even consider a request for a spousal hire on the grounds that spousal hires are unethical nepotism.)
I can think of many other scientific norms that have changed somewhat (or for some people), and that some scientists would like to see changed completely. But I don’t see them completely changing in the next few decades (I could be wrong!). I’m thinking for instance of publishing in subscription journals, lecturing as a pedagogical approach, flying to scientific conferences, and single-blind peer review as opposed to double-blind or open review. All of those things are currently widely (not universally) regarded as ethically acceptable, and I don’t think any of them will come to be widely regarded as unethical in the next few decades. Rather, I think for many of them we’ll see a long-term quasi-equilibrium in which the majority regard the conduct concerned as ethically acceptable while a minority do not. Much as with vegetarianism or veganism in the US–a minority regard it as an ethical imperative, but that minority seems not to be either growing or shrinking, at least not very fast.
I’m sure there’s a massive historical and sociological literature on norm change. I wish I knew more about it. Why do some norms change fast, others slowly, others not at all? One hypothesis: changing some norms requires solving collective action problems. The majority of people might well want to change to a new norm, or at least not mind changing. But only if everyone else changes too, because it’s potentially risky or costly for a “pioneer” to change to a new norm without many others doing so. So the norm remains unchanged in the absence of some coordination mechanism everyone trusts. The norm that it’s ok to publish in subscription journals seems like an example. Part of the reason everyone wants to publish in certain subscription journals is that everyone else thinks highly of those journals and pays at least some attention to them. It’s hard to get everyone to coordinate on some new publication venue or literature-filtering method that plays the same role currently played by those journals.
Note that this post is descriptive, not evaluative. For purposes of this post I’m only concerned with whether any current scientific norms might change dramatically in future, not with whether current or future norms are good or bad. (UPDATE: I emphasize that this post is not a list of current scientific norms that I think are bad and ought to change. In this post, I’m not expressing any view one way or the other on whether any particular norm is good or bad. I do of course have my own views on which current scientific norms are bad, but I’ve chosen to keep my views to myself for purposes of this post. I of course recognize that many readers would rather comment on which norms should change rather than which norms will change, which is fine.)