Getting ready for open research

By Andrea Chiarelli, 29/06/2018

On Tuesday 26th June, I attended the Inside Government event Moving Towards Full Open Access in Higher Education in London. The event dealt with open access and its challenges but also, more broadly, with open research. Thanks to a pool of high-profile speakers, we were presented with a series of significant observations – in this post, I will highlight what I felt were the main points made during the day.

Open research, open science, open access, open research data?

Nowadays, it has become rather common to hear about openness in the field of research and dissemination. However, people tend to use a range of different terms in this landscape, starting from open research, the broadest and most comprehensive, down to open access (OA) and open research data (ORD). As Jisc’s Neil Jacobs reminded us, open research refers to openness throughout the whole research lifecycle, including OA and ORD but also overarching principles such as open research methods, collaborations, permissive licensing and enabling participation by a wider range of people. It should be noted that the term open science is sometimes used interchangeably with open research.

The above clearly shows that the landscape is complex and there will be a range of subtleties and different stakeholders with their own interests and agendas. For instance, the term “open access” is used in different situations to mean that an article has a CC licence, that it is free to read with no licensing considerations, or something else entirely!

Current challenges…

At the moment, Brexit threatens to separate the UK from its continental neighbours both politically and ideologically. However, to realise the full benefits of open research we may wish to collaborate and think internationally, ensuring we reach agreements that go beyond national borders to enable this practice to live up to its promise.

In the UK, the main approach followed to date to encourage openness has been the use of policy mandates. The most (in)famous is the overarching Research Excellence Framework (REF) OA policy, but most funders now have their own OA and/or ORD policies, too. At the Inside Government event, it was recognised how policies were (and still are) instrumental to drive cultural change, but multiple speakers stressed that policy compliance alone cannot be the reason why researchers should pursue open research.

Think, for example, of institutional repositories. Unless they become about better scholarship rather than REF compliance, they risk becoming irrelevant and burdensome due to the high efforts and costs involved.

CC BY-SA Nevit Dilmen

Other challenges in the sector include the increasing cost of OA publication, the limited evidence on the benefits of OA and ORD, the growing tension between OA advocates and some academic publishers (e.g. the boycott of Elsevier subscriptions in Germany and Finland) and the difficult topic of OA monographs. Furthermore, there is growing criticism of the hybrid OA publishing route: this is an ongoing discussion arising from the fact that the hybrid model was only expected to ease the transition to OA rather than becoming an established approach.

…and some solutions!

After all the negativity in the previous section, let me reassure you. The players in the open research arena aren’t just sitting and waiting for something to happen:

  • Jisc is developing the Research Data Shared Service to build a multi-tenant cloud repository that should ease the pressure on individual institutions and incorporate all activities from date ingest to long-term preservation;
  • Some universities are developing or have developed their own presses (UCL’s OA megajournal is an interesting example) to advocate for OA locally and help researchers appreciate its benefits while boosting the institution’s profile;
  • UKRI and Wellcome are reviewing their OA policies to rationalise them and ensure they are effective and promote best practices in open research;
  • The REF2021 environment template will consider what has been done beyond the minimum OA policy requirements, with an eye towards approaches to ORD and other aspects of pen research;
  • The post-2021 REF exercises will consider OA monographs, too, to stress that they are as important as academic articles when it comes to open research;
  • Universities are starting to endorse responsible metrics, particularly through the DORA initiative, to highlight that impact factors alone are not a suitable approach to measuring research impact;
  • The European Commission has appointed Robert-Jan Smits as special envoy on open science, with a push to make all publicly funded research in Europe freely available by 2020;
  • Collaborative platforms allow citizen scientists not only to be passive participants providing data but also contributors to the co-design of research agendas, thanks to the inclusion of lay summaries and engagement programmes.

Final thoughts

What really stuck with me was that there is a need for a more coordinated approach. At the moment, there are too many specificities in the open research arena, due to different disciplinary cultures but also to a fragmented and sometimes immature policy landscape.

In terms of the systems and processes enabling open research, OA and ORD, we have seen significant progress over the past six or seven years. However, fragmentation is an issue in this case, too. There seem to be too many systems, approaches and players, while we lack one of the features that could make this whole thing easier: automation. That is surely easier said than done, but making the processes and workflows of open research smoother will certainly play a pivotal role in the upcoming (I’m confident!) shift.

I will leave you with a thought that surfaced at the Inside Government event: isn’t it somewhat odd that, at times, academics decide to release their work via publisher platforms that limit access and reuse, but, nonetheless, call this choice academic freedom? Only time will tell…

Further reading

If you are looking to find out more about open research or OA, we recommend the following recent reports: