How can institutions increase engagement with open scholarship practices?

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How can institutions increase engagement with open scholarship practices?

Over the past decade, first as a researcher and then as a consultant, I have spoken with hundreds of other researchers and research professionals. One of the things I have been particularly interested in is open scholarship practices. This topic encompasses practices such as open access publishing, data sharing, code sharing, preprint posting, open peer review, open licensing and more. Open scholarship is closely connected with research integrity, reproducibility and research culture, and is something that many universities are thinking about very carefully – but only few are mastering.

Part of the challenge is that researchers have been showing resistance to change. In some cases this is ideological, but I would argue that in most it is about lack of incentives, awareness or time. In a sense, it is very easy to dismiss open scholarship practices as being too difficult, because researchers – but also those supporting them – need to upskill themselves and embrace new approaches, overcoming the inertia of established workflows.

In this article, I share eight key objections to open scholarship practices that I have heard time and time again from researchers, as well as ways in which institutions can take action and support them.

1. “I don’t have time or money.”

It is well known that academics are often pulled in too many directions: they must be masters in teaching, research, impact, policy engagement, open sharing and more. It is not surprising that some do not engage with open scholarship practices simply because they lack time or funding to do so. It is easy to underestimate the time needed to prepare data, code and other outputs for public sharing, as well as the familiarity that one needs with the appropriate infrastructure and technology. In some cases, grant and funding constraints are the culprit, as they do not cover activities that may take place after the end of the grant: if a researcher publishes their outputs after the grant’s timeframe, there may not be any funding available to cover for specialist time for data curation and, potentially, to pay for extra online storage.

Institutions should offer training and support to streamline the preparation of data, documents and code for open sharing, making the process as efficient and manageable as possible. It is also good practice to offer a set of basic research support services for free at the point of use. For example, a basic level of data curation and documentation plus a sensible amount of online storage (for both active project data and archive data) may be made available to researchers for free, to ensure that they can practically meet their institution’s open scholarship ambitions.

2. “I am afraid that errors will be exposed.”

This second objection to open scholarship refers to apprehension or anxiety that researchers may experience when considering making their work, findings or methodologies publicly available. Given that academia relies strongly on the reputation of individual researchers, it is not surprising that many may fear being judged for any errors or mistakes in their work. The fear of public scrutiny can make researchers hesitant to share previously ‘hidden’ part of the process, such as non-peer-reviewed manuscripts (preprints), code or data that just a few years ago were not typically requested by journals or other researchers.

Institutions can encourage researchers to view open sharing as an opportunity for constructive feedback and collaboration, fostering a culture of support and improvement. It is particularly helpful to normalize practices such as open and transparent peer review, shifting to a more open research culture that embraces continuous improvement rather than glorifying one’s number of publications. This is very closely related with the following objection about career progression, too.

3. “I am anxious about career progression.”

Career and recognition anxiety refers to the concerns and fears researchers may have about how openly sharing their work could impact their professional standing, advancement and recognition within the academic community. Aside from links with the previous objection, this is deeply rooted in issues such as high competition for funding and positions; the fear that open sharing may affect the odds of publication in high-impact journals; tenure and promotion criteria; and the widespread use of bibliometric databases for research(er) evaluation, which may not cover journals where open sharing is possible (i.e. open access journals).

Institutions should ensure that committees or panels that deal with career evaluation consider open scholarship practices as part of their criteria, and emphasize that working openly can lead to more significant professional achievements. They should also keep an eye on (and ideally join!) fast-developing initiatives around the ongoing reform of research culture and research assessment, for example the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA) and the Coalition for Advancing Research Assessment (CoARA).

4. “I can’t risk messing with data security and ethics.”

Researchers rightly worry about the need to protect sensitive information, the potential for misuse and the ethical implications of sharing certain types of data openly. Key concerns revolve around the exposure of sensitive information and data security breaches, but sometimes the main challenge is the time needed to anonymize sensitive data prior to sharing. This is also related to informed consent, which institutions typically review formally prior to a research study through research ethics applications. If the academic has not indicated their desire to share data at the time of ethics approval (e.g. interview or survey findings), it becomes exponentially difficult to obtain permission to do so.

Universities should clearly emphasize that there is no pressure to share data where this could lead to unintended consequences or cause harm – the principle of “as open as possible as closed as necessary” is often helpful to illustrate that. At the same time, they should provide tools and training for robust anonymization, so as much data as possible is shared, as well as having clear research ethics processes that nudge the researcher to think about sharing at the right point in time.

5. “I don’t know how to use the technology.”

Some researchers may lack the necessary skills or experience to effectively leverage digital tools and platforms. This challenge can manifest in various ways, preventing researchers from adopting and engaging in open scholarship practices. For example, technological barriers are frequent when using data and code management tools, open access platforms, preprint servers, digital repositories, collaborative platforms and more.

Institutions must offer foundational training programs on open research tools, to ensure that most of their staff have the skills required for basic open sharing tasks. Additionally, it would be ideal to provide or outsource training on cutting-edge methods and platforms, to familiarize researchers with new technologies and promote a smooth transition to emerging ways of working. Online guidance, support services and community building are some of the best ways of addressing this gap, although it is essential to keep in mind that different disciplines speak different languages and may be interested in different tools. A positive example of community building is that of national reproducibility networks – for example the UK Reproducibility Network in our local context.

6. “I am worried about intellectual property and commercialization.”

Intellectual property concerns in the context of open scholarship practices revolve around the protection of ideas, inventions and creative works. Researchers often grapple with the balance between sharing their findings openly for the benefit of the scientific community and protecting their intellectual property rights. This is no doubt a fair concern, but surely not an unsurmountable one: it is often possible to delay open sharing until after certain project or contractual milestones.

Institutions can provide guidance on how to strategically protect intellectual property, using appropriate licenses, correct attribution and carefully managing the timing of disclosures. This type of support is particularly important where trade secrets, patents, inventions or, more broadly, commercialization opportunities might be involved.

7. “I am a victim of conflicting policies.”

The policies set by academic institutions, funding agencies, and publishers can influence researchers’ decisions and practices related to sharing their work openly. The most critical scenario is when these policies are not in agreement, and a researcher would find themselves in the impossible position of having to meet conflicting requirements.

Institutions should advocate for and contribute to the development of straightforward internal policies that align with and support open research practices, avoiding conflicts with funder requirements that are likely to confuse researchers. Most importantly, they should educate their staff on these, to ensure that any institutional requirements are enabling good practice rather than hindering efforts. It would also be ideal to have an open door policy, to ensure that, where policy conflicts do arise, a clear solution can be recommended by the institution. This is frequently the case when it comes to international collaborations, where co-authors may be subject to dramatically different national and institutional requirements.

8. “I think it’s a waste of time.”

Finally, some researchers may just have (legitimate!) doubts or skepticism about the practical benefits or value they may derive from openly sharing their work. This perception can be influenced by various factors, including all the points made above as well as concerns about so-called ‘scooping’. In some cases, however, this might simply happen because one has never been exposed to open scholarship practices in their peer group and is naturally resisting a change in established habits.

Aside from all the recommendations I shared above, institutions are also well placed to promote case studies around open sharing. It is surprisingly difficult to predict how a given dataset or code might positively affect someone else’s work, and this is very hard to communicate. By discussing real success stories, some skeptics may be convinced to have a go at openly sharing their work and begin embracing a culture that values transparency, collaboration and the broad dissemination of knowledge.

What to do next?

To truly advance open scholarship practices among the researcher community, institutions need to embrace a cultural shift, aligning career progression criteria with contributions to open scholarship, and offering comprehensive training to upskill staff in relevant technologies and methods. Addressing intellectual property concerns requires guidelines on licensing and how to protect one’s findings and data, while promoting clear internal policies and providing budgetary support can minimize conflicts and incentivize open research in practice.

Engaging with reform initiatives and fostering communities of practice will further contribute to creating a positive, open, and transparent research culture. Many institutions around the world are already moving in this direction, as are many funding agencies. The question for all institutions to reflect on is: What is the opportunity cost of not fully engaging with open research?

Personally, this is not a price I would be prepared to pay.

This article first appeared on LinkedIn on 22 January 2024.

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