Opinion: Science can only progress by building on the research of others and open science aims to make this work accessible to all

By John Cox and Elaine Toomey, NUI Galway

Today marks the start of International Open Access Week, an opportunity to celebrate progress towards open science worldwide. Open science is a global movement that wants to make publications, data and research publicly accessible as early as possible and actively encourage the general public to participate in a collaborative and transparent research process. It is important to note that open practices extend to all disciplines, not just science.

Why is open science needed?

Ensuring that science is open, accessible and usable is crucial in order to achieve the greatest possible impact of research. Examples of successful open science collaborations hint at the potential of what can be achieved. In 2016, early sharing of data helped to save lives by bringing the west African ebola virus outbreak under control. The Human Genome Project commenced in 1990 and facilitated data sharing among scientists to decode the human genome by 2003, far sooner than had been anticipated. Public participation has also had significant outputs, ranging from millions of entries in Wikipedia to better water management through the WeSenseIT project.

In addition to the benefits that open science can bring, there is also a recognition of the moral and ethical obligations to make research accessible and accountable. Despite the vast amount of research that is funded through public tax contributions, a huge proportion of this is not open or freely available, and instead sits behind the paywalls of commercial journal publishers, as outlined in a Guardian piece by George Monbiot. Research waste is also a serious concern. It has been estimated that the results of around half of all clinical trials remain unpublished, meaning that potentially valuable findings are lost, research is needlessly duplicated and time, funding and patient input is wasted.

Physicist turned writer Michael Nielsen on open science at TEDx Waterloo

There are also concerns about the integrity of some research. This made the front cover of The Economist in October 2013, with a headline of "How Science Goes Wrong" and a revelation that only six of 53 published studies in cancer research could be reproduced in one example. An open science approach would have made all materials openly accessible, increasing transparency and making it easier to reproduce reported results.

What’s the problem?

So why does so much research remain closed, despite the obvious benefits of open science? Arguably, one of the biggest obstacles to open science is the current reward system for academic researchers. Career advancement and funding prospects largely depend on metrics such as the volume of articles produced, and the publication of articles in the most recognised journals in a field. Unfortunately, many of these journals are the property of often highly profitable commercial publishers who typically charge for access. This means that only those who can afford to pay can read their articles, largely excluding the general public who have often funded the research, as well as researchers in poorer countries or institutions.

This reward system also drives a competitive culture among researchers which is at odds with the collaborative nature of open science. For example, researchers can be reluctant to share datasets or other materials for fear of jeopardising potential publication opportunities or having ideas ‘scooped’ by other researchers. Other concerns relate to data protection regulations, potential misuse of data, and a mistrust of open access which is often fuelled by predatory or potentially fraudulent journals.

Unrestricted and open access to a study’s findings and the journal articles, books or other publications arising from the study is at the heart of open science

What does Open Science involve?

Scientific research typically involves a number of stages. It starts with planning and designing a study or a project, then proceeds to collecting data and information, analysing and studying the data, and subsequently reporting and making the findings available. Open science is essentially about trying to improve transparency and accountability across each of these stages. For example, pre-registration of a study at the planning stages involves creating a public record of the research plan before data collection begins. This lessens the risk of producing biased science, such as a study that collects data on several outcomes, but only reports the positive or favourable findings.

Unrestricted and open access to a study’s findings and the journal articles, books or other publications arising from the study is at the heart of open science. This important concept of free access also relates to study materials such as the questionnaires and measures used, software code and lab books and the research data generated from the study. Making data open and FAIR (Findable, Accessible, Interoperable and Usable) ensures that the findings can be verified and reproduced, enabling us to be more certain of these findings, whilst also paving the way for better and stronger collaborations.

Elements of Open Science

Early sharing is a key feature of open science in order to accelerate the uptake and use of important research findings. Traditionally, the lengthy peer review process for journal publications means that it takes considerable time for findings to be made available. Open science has begun to shift the emphasis towards sharing research as it progresses, embracing open methods such as blogging and open notebooks, or peer review conducted openly after publication to improve the speed and spread of knowledge.  

One of the main areas of focus within open science is the need to create better reward systems for researchers, and to recognise a more diverse range of contributions or impact when evaluating research and individual careers. Alternative metrics, or altmetrics, track a wider range of activity, attention and impact such as public engagement and social contribution, rather than just number of publications and citations and can help to incentivise open practices. Another important element of open science is citizen science which promotes inclusion of, and contribution from, members of the public in research.

What does the future hold?

On a positive note, the global movement towards ensuring that research is more transparent, collaborative, accessible and efficient is gathering momentum, with many groups of researchers actively campaigning and advocating for change.

Ultimately, open science promotes better science, but it is something towards which we all need to work

Open science has been identified as a key priority for the European Commission. Several research funding bodies such as the Gates Foundation, the Wellcome Trust, Science Foundation Ireland and the Health Research Board have also taken steps towards improving the situation. For example, the Irish Health Research Board (HRB) has recently invested in the development of HRB Open Research – a publishing platform for HRB-funded researchers to share and publish their research in an open and accessible way. Science Foundation Ireland is a signatory of Plan S, an initiative launched by Science Europe to ensure that all publicly-funded research is published in open access journals or on compliant open access platforms by 2020. Many funders have also begun to include sections regarding open data management and reporting procedures as part of standard funding applications.

However, there is much action that is still urgently needed. For example, a 2016-2017 European University Association survey showed that under 40 percent of participating researchers felt that open access in universities was of high importance. This is of great concern, but may reflect the existing reward systems, which will fundamentally shape and focus what researchers prioritise.

As such, universities and other research institutions play a pivotal role in cultivating an open science environment by improving how research and researchers are valued. Signing the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment, a set of recommendations developed in 2012 to improve the ways in which research is evaluated by funders and institutions, should be a priority for research institutions. But perhaps more importantly, institutions need also to work actively towards ensuring that their underlying values, ethos and reward systems are in alignment.  

Ensuring that science is "open" requires a major shift in research culture and attitudes towards sharing and collaboration. In changing and challenging times, being able to trust in science and research has never been so important, and members of the public should expect to be able to access research findings and contribute to science. Ultimately, open science promotes better science, but it is something towards which we all need to work.

John Cox is University Librarian at NUI GalwayDr Elaine Toomey is a Health Research Board postdoctoral research fellow with the Health Behaviour Change Research Group at NUI Galway. She is also a Catalyst for the University of California Berkeley Initiative for Transparency in the Social Sciences.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ