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Capitalism and Society

A Journal of the Center on Capitalism and Society

Ed. by Phelps, Edmund / Bhidé, Amar

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The Historical Origins of 'Open Science': An Essay on Patronage, Reputation and Common Agency Contracting in the Scientific Revolution

Paul A. David
  • Stanford University & The University of Oxford
Published Online: 2008-10-24 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.2202/1932-0213.1040

This essay examines the economics of patronage in the production of knowledge and its influence upon the historical formation of key elements in the ethos and organizational structure of publicly funded `open science.' The emergence during the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries of the idea and practice of `open science' was a distinctive and vital organizational aspect of the Scientific Revolution. It represented a break from the previously dominant ethos of secrecy in the pursuit of Nature's Secrets, to a new set of norms, incentives, and organizational structures that reinforced scientific researchers' commitments to rapid disclosure of new knowledge. The rise of `cooperative rivalries' in the revelation of new knowledge, is seen as a functional response to heightened asymmetric information problems posed for the Renaissance system of court-patronage of the arts and sciences; pre-existing informational asymmetries had been exacerbated by the claims of mathematicians and the increasing practical reliance upon new mathematical techniques in a variety of `contexts of application.' Reputational competition among Europe's noble patrons motivated much of their efforts to attract to their courts the most prestigious natural philosophers, was no less crucial in the workings of that system than was the concern among their would-be clients to raise their peer-based reputational status. In late Renaissance Europe, the feudal legacy of fragmented political authority had resulted in relations between noble patrons and their savant-clients that resembled the situation modern economists describe as `common agency contracting in substitutes' -- competition among incompletely informed principals for the dedicated services of multiple agents. These conditions tended to result in contract terms (especially with regard to autonomy and financial support) that left agent client members of the nascent scientific communities better positioned to retain larger information rents on their specialized knowledge. This encouraged entry into their emerging disciplines, and enabled them collectively to develop a stronger degree of professional autonomy for their programs of inquiry within the increasingly specialized and formal scientific academies (such the Académie royale des Sciences and the Royal Society) that had attracted the patronage of rival absolutist States of Western Europe during the latter part of the seventeenth century. The institutionalization of `open science' that took place within those settings is shown to have continuities with the use by scientists of the earlier humanist academies, and with the logic of regal patronage, rather than being driven by the material requirements of new observational and experimental techniques.

Keywords: open science; new economics of science; evolution of institutions; patronage; asymmetric information; principal-agent problems; common agency contracting; social networks; invisible colleges; scientific academies

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Published Online: 2008-10-24


Citation Information: Capitalism and Society, ISSN (Online) 1932-0213, DOI: https://doi.org/10.2202/1932-0213.1040.

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