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Challenges and opportunities for Open Science

Challenges and opportunities for Open Science

***post authored by Lisa Matthias***

November was packed with events around Open Science and scholarly communication. From November 11-13th, Berlin was flooded with students and early career researchers from all over the world, all enthusiastic about spending these three days at OpenCon. During the conference, attendees learnt about Open Access, Open Education, and Open Data through presentations, regional workshops, and hands-on experience to advance "Open" in their communities. Following OpenCon, SpotOn London (November 17th), a one-day science communication and policy conference, centered around the questions “What makes a great researcher? What skills should be taught to academics, and who should be teaching them? What is the best way to make sure that we are developing "Open" skills, and how do we facilitate more effective collaboration?” A possible answer to these questions was the OpenCon satellite event in London (November 21st). During the day, more experienced researchers guided less experienced attendees through topics such as reproducibility and coding and led to fruitful collaborations.
What these three events had in common is exploring what is needed to encourage and foster openness in research. What are barriers to adopt Open Science practices and what challenges exist within the “Open” community itself? To drive openness successfully, we first need to understand the obstacles. Once we do, we can see them as opportunities for improvement and approach them more effectively and efficiently. During the events, three challenges (or opportunities) were continuously mentioned and discussed: Incentives for “Open”, perception as additional work and lack of training, and diversity and inclusivity.

Incentives for "Open"

One could say that researchers shouldn’t need incentives to make their work as open as possible. After all, it should be of every researcher’s interest to share their research, drive knowledge transfer, and contribute to a more reliable scientific record. However, at the core what researchers really want is to just do research, progress their careers, and get paid. Therefore they need to go through assessment processes to be promoted and tenured, and to receive funding. So one of the biggest, and most complex, discussions at the moment, is how to reconcile open science practices with incentives for career development. At the same time as this, there is a general lack of clarity and guidance how to assess the impact of Open activities and the professional rewards and benefits are often unclear.
[caption id="attachment_2694" align="aligncenter" width="600"] OpenCon 2017, Berlin: ScholComm Lab at SFU is assessing current practices in Review, Tenure, and Promotion

To get a better understanding of how review, promotion and tenure (RPT) guidelines include (or exclude) Open practices, the Scholarly Communications Lab at Simon Fraser University has began to look at over 800 of these documents from American and Canadian universities. Carol Muñoz Nieves let OpenCon Berlin attendees have a sneak peek at the preliminary results, which showed that RPT guidelines frequently mention “public engagement in scholarship”, yet this is not reflected by the types scholarly output and impact measures. Especially worrisome is the fact that only 3 out of 864 documents explicitly mentioned “open access”, with two of these being negative.
[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="2048"]SpotOn London 2017: Public engagement doesn't have to be scary. There are lots of different ways to communicate your research. SpotOn London 2017: Public engagement doesn't have to be scary. There are lots of different ways to communicate your research.

However, even if Open practices were explicitly included in the criteria for researcher assessment, issues like the lack of clarity in how to assess these activities would not just disappear. At OpenCon London, Sophie Scott, Professor of Neuroscience at UCL, described her submission to the UK’s REF Impact Case Studies - examples demonstrating the impact of their research on wider society. Her case was based on a paper that had lead to a sequence of public engagement events - a popular TEDx talk, followed by a higher level TED talk, which was then used by Chris Anderson (owner of TED) for a book chapter on storytelling, and also lead to her appearance on BBC’s Horizon, an impressive achievement for anyone. However, this was not considered to have strong enough impact based on public engagement alone for the REF.
[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="2048"]SpotOn London 2017: How do we measure impact? SpotOn London 2017: How do we measure impact?

Likewise, at SpotOn London Altmetric founder Euan Adie said evaluating research based on public engagement needs to be done carefully. He explained that high levels of public attention, or a high Altmetric score, should not be taken as an indicator for high impact, but that the qualitative context matters and looking at what kind of attention the research received and why can give further insight into its impact. Everyone agreed that the impact factor needs to be destroyed. One of the major themes, or solutions for the future, was exploring ways of capturing the diversity of scholarly outputs in research assessment, and also calculating new ways of capturing the impact of these.

Perception as additional work and lack of training

To be able to adopt Open Science practices researchers need specific knowledge, skills and tools. These however are rarely formally taught in university, and thus learning new practices becomes a time and effort-consuming activity on top of researchers’ existing workloads.
A possible solution to this would be to integrate Open Science training into academic curricula, and let it become part of the research process naturally. Such changes have been proposed repeatedly over the last year or so in the EU. Initiatives like the Open Science MOOC (which I am on the steering committee for) and FOSTER, both represented at OpenCon Berlin, plan to do exactly that - “equip students and researchers with the skills they need to excel in a modern Web-based research environment”.
Yet again, as senior researchers have already developed their routine over the course of their career, practicing Open Science will usually not appear natural to them, and they tend to adopt a sort of “If it isn’t broken, don’t try and fix it” attitude. In these cases, individual face-to-face training that is tailored to the specific needs of the senior researcher's team would be extremely valuable. Having an expert come in to guide you can be extremely powerful and in fact a game changer, and there are now many examples of successful open-themed workshops, hackathons, discussions, usually by and for researchers. Indeed, At the OpenCon satellite London, teams worked on reproducing previously published research findings, learning how to understand the importance of this practice, while developing a strong new skillset.

Diversity and inclusivity

Diversity can mean many different things - e.g. age, gender, discipline, profession, career stage, language, region and many more demographic or psychographic traits. OpenCon continued to push for more diverse representation in Berlin, and did an outstanding job at inviting a truly diverse group of people - 186 participants from 62 countries and 6 continents - and letting them be heard. Recurring topics included the dominance of the English language in research and scholarly publishing and consequently the marginalization of other languages, how to include other people, like non-scientists or academics from a different discipline, in the research process, how other disciplines fit into Open Science and can adapt Open practices, and influence that these factors have on power dynamics. Some highlights include the founding of, Open Humanities & Social Sciences during OpenCon and at SpotOn London Eva Amsen shared what scientists can learn from musicians.
[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="2048"]SpotOn London 2017: What musicians can teach scientists. SpotOn London 2017: What musicians can teach scientists.

The highlight of OpenCon Berlin was the ever-popular, and ever-progressive, diversity panel, which reminded the audience to be aware of the existing power dynamics and biases within the Open community. The panel cautioned that not everything needs to be open and that it is important to be mindful of each individual context when acting and advocating for Open. The key takeaway was to stay critical (including of ourselves), look behind the curtain, and keep asking questions.
[caption id="attachment_2701" align="aligncenter" width="600"]OpenCon 2017, Berlin: Whose voice is missing? OpenCon 2017, Berlin: Whose voice is missing?

Recordings of all three events have been made available online by the organizers: OpenCon Berlin, SpotOn London, OpenCon Satellite London


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28 Jan 2021

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