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A personal view of open science – Part III – Social issues

16 October 2008 2 Comments

The third installment of the paper (first part, second part) where I discuss social issues around practicing more Open Science.

Scientists are inherently rather conservative in their adoption of new approaches and tools. A conservative approach has served the community well in the process of sifting ideas and claims; this approach is well summarised by the aphorism ‘extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence’. New methodologies and tools often struggle to be accepted until the evidence of their superiority is overwhelming. It is therefore unreasonable to expect the rapid adoption of new web based tools and even more unreasonable to expect scientsits to change their overall approach to their research en masse. The experience of adoption of new Open Access journals is a good example of this.

Recent studies have shown that scientists are, in principle, in favour of publishing in Open Access journals yet show marked reluctance to publish in such journals in practice [1]. The most obvious reason for this is the perceived cost. Because most operating Open Access publishers charge a publication fee, and until recently such charges were not allowable costs for many research funders, it can be challenging for researchers to obtain the necessary funds. Although most OA publishers will waive these charges there is anecdotally a marked reluctance to ask for such a waiver. Other reasons for not submitting papers to OA journals include the perception that most OA journals are low impact and a lack of OA journals in specific fields. Finally, simple inertia can be a factor where the traditional publication outlets for a specific field are well defined and publishing outside the set of ‘standard’ journals runs the risk of the work simply not being seen by peers. As there is no perception of a reward for publishing in open access journals, and a perception of significant risk, uptake remains relatively small.

Making data available faces similar challenges but here they are more profound. At least when publishing in an open access journal it can be counted as a paper. Because there is no culture of citing primary data, but rather of citing the papers they are reported in, there is no reward for making data available. If careers are measured in papers published then making data available does not contribute to career development. Data availability to date has generally been driven by strong community norms, usually backed up by journal submission requirements. Again this links data publication to paper publication without necessarily encouraging the release of data that is not explicitly linked to a peer reviewed paper. The large scale DNA sequencing and astronomy facilities stand out as cases where data is automatically made available as it is taken. In both cases this policy is driven largely by the funders, or facility providers, who are in position to make release a condition of funding the data collection. This is not, however a policy that has been adopted by other facilities such as synchrotrons, neutron sources, or high power photon sources.

In other fields where data is more heterogeneous and particular where competition to publish is fierce, the idea of data availability raises many fears. The primary one is of being ‘scooped’ or data theft where others publish a paper before the data collector has had the ability to fully analyse the data. This again is partly answered by robust data citation standards but this does not prevent another group publishing an analysis quicker, potentially damaging the career or graduation prospects of the data collector. A principle of ‘first right to publish’ is often suggested. Other approaches include timed embargoes for re-use or release. All of these have advantages and disadvantages which depend to a large extent on how well behaved members of a specific field are. Another significant concern is that the release of substandard, non peer-reviewed, or simply innaccurate data into the public domain will lead to further problems of media hype and public misunderstanding. This must be balanced against the potential public good of having relevant research data available.

The community, or more accurately communities, in general, are waiting for evidence of benefits before adopting either open access publication or open data policies. This actually provides the opportunity for individuals and groups to take first mover advantages. While remaining controversial [3, 4] there is some evidence that publication in open access journals leads to higher citation counts for papers [5, 6] and that papers for which the supporting data is available receive more citations [7]. This advantage is likely to be at its greatest early in the adoption curve and will clearly disappear if these approaches become widespread. There are therefore clear advantages to be had in rapidly adopting more open approaches to research which can be balanced against the risks described above.

Measuring success in the application of open approaches and particularly quantifying success relative to traditional approaches is a challenge, as is demonstrated by the continuing controversy over the citation advantage of open access articles. However pointing to examples of success is relatively straightforward. In fact Open Science has a clear public relations advantage as the examples are out in the open for anyone to see. This exposure can be both good and bad but it makes publicising best practice easy. In many ways the biggest successes of open practice are the ones that we miss because they are right in front of us, the global databases of freely accessible data in biological databases such as the Protein Data Bank, NCBI, and many others that have driven the massive advances in biological sciences over the past 20 years. The ability to analyse and consider the implications of genome scale DNA sequence data, as it is being generated, is now

In the physical sciences, the arXiv has long stood as an example to other disciplines of how the research literature can be made available in an effective and rapid manner, and the availability of astronomical data from efforts such as the Sloan Digital Sky Survey make efforts combining public outreach and the crowdsourcing of data analysis such as Galaxy Zoo possible. There is likely to be a massive expansion in the availability of environmental and ecological data globally as the potential to combine millions of data gatherers holding mobile phones, and sophisticated data aggregation and manipulation tools is realised.

Closer to the bleeding edge of radical sharing there have been less high profile successes, a reflection both of the limited amount of time these approaches have been pursued and the limited financial and personnel resources that have been available. Nonetheless there are examples. Garret Lisi’s high profile preprint on the ArXiv, An exceptionally simple theory of everything, [8] is supported by a comprehensive online notebook at http://deferentialgeometry.org that contains all the arguments as well as the background detail and definitions that support the paper. The announcement by Jean-Claude Bradley of the successful identification of several compounds with activity against malaria [9] is an example where the whole research process was carried out in the open, from the decision on what the research target should be, through the design and in silico testing of a library of chemicals, to the synthesis and testing of those compounds. For every step of this process the data is available online and several of the collaborators that made the study possible made contact due to finding that material online. The potential for a coordinated global synthesis and screening effort is currently being investigated.

There are both benefits and risks associated with open practice in research. Often the discussion with researchers is focussed on the disadvantages and risks. In an inherently conservative pursuit it is perfectly valid to ask whether changes of the type and magnitude offer any benefits given the potential risks they pose. These are not concerns that should be dismissed or ridiculed, but ones that should be taken seriously, and considered. Radical change never comes without casualties, and while some concerns may be misplaced, or overblowm, there are many that have real potential consequences. In a competitive field people will necessarily make diverse decisions on the best way forward for them. What is important is providing as good information to them as is possible to help them balance the risks and benefits of any approach they choose to take.

The fourth and final part of this paper can be found here.

  1. Warlick S E, Vaughan K T. Factors influencing publication choice: why faculty choose open access. Biomedical Digital Libraries. 2007;4:1-12.
  2. Bentley D R. Genomic Sequence Information Should Be Released Immediately and Freely. Science. 1996;274(October):533-534.
  3. Piwowar H A, Day R S, Fridsma D B. Sharing Detailed Research Data Is Associated with Increased Citation Rate. PLoS ONE. 2007;1(3):e308.
  4. Davis P M, Lewenstein B V, Simon D H, Booth J G, Connolly M J. Open access publishing, article downloads, and citations: randomised controlled trial. BMJ. 2008;337(October):a568.
  5. Rapid responses to David et al., http://www.bmj.com/cgi/eletters/337/jul31_1/a568
  6. Eysenbach G. Citation Advantage of Open Access Articles. PLoS Biology. 2006;4(5):e157.
  7. Hajjem, C., Harnad, S. and Gingras, Y. (2005) Ten-Year Cross-Disciplinary Comparison of the Growth of Open Access and How it Increases Research Citation Impact. IEEE Data Engineering Bulletin, 28 (4). pp. 39-47. http://eprints.ecs.soton.ac.uk/12906/
  8. Lisi G, An exceptionally simple theory of everything, arXiv:0711.0770v1 [hep-th], November 2007.
  9. Bradley J C, We have antimalarial activity!, UsefulChem Blog, http://usefulchem.blogspot.com/2008/01/we-have-anti-malarial-activity.html, January 25 2008.


  • Roozbeh Sanaei said:

    personally i think having better and integrated scientific networks (you have mentioned it before) is more important than having a open notebooks. current networks (i.e. nature network) are very diperse and i dont know which mechanism can integrate them together and excite people to joining them

  • Roozbeh Sanaei said:

    personally i think having better and integrated scientific networks (you have mentioned it before) is more important than having a open notebooks. current networks (i.e. nature network) are very diperse and i dont know which mechanism can integrate them together and excite people to joining them