The open con­cept

Re­search trans­parency: Five ques­tions about open science an­swered.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Science - By EL­IZ­A­BETH GILBERT

What is ‘open science’?

OPEN science is a set of prac­tices de­signed to make sci­en­tific pro­cesses and re­sults more trans­par­ent and ac­ces­si­ble to peo­ple out­side the re­search team.

It in­cludes mak­ing com­plete re­search ma­te­ri­als, data and lab pro­ce­dures freely avail­able on­line to any­one. Many sci­en­tists are also pro­po­nents of open ac­cess, a par­al­lel move­ment in­volv­ing mak­ing re­search ar­ti­cles avail­able to read with­out a sub­scrip­tion or ac­cess fee.

Why are re­searchers in­ter­ested in open science? What prob­lems does it aim to ad­dress?

Re­cent re­search finds that many pub­lished sci­en­tific find­ings might not be re­li­able. For ex­am­ple, re­searchers have re­ported be­ing able to repli­cate only 40% or less of cancer bi­ol­ogy re­sults, and a large-scale at­tempt to repli­cate psy­chol­ogy stud­ies suc­cess­fully re­pro­duced fewer than half of the orig­i­nal re­sults. This has come to be called a “re­pro­ducibil­ity cri­sis”. It’s pushed many sci­en­tists to look for ways to im­prove their re­search prac­tices and in­crease study reli­a­bil­ity.

Prac­tis­ing open science is one way to do so. When sci­en­tists share their un­der­ly­ing ma­te­ri­als and data, other sci­en­tists can more eas­ily eval­u­ate and at­tempt to repli­cate them.

Also, open science can help speed sci­en­tific dis­cov­ery. When sci­en­tists share their ma­te­ri­als and data, oth­ers can use and an­a­lyse them in new ways, po­ten­tially lead­ing to new dis­cov­er­ies.

Some jour­nals are specif­i­cally ded­i­cated to pub­lish­ing data sets for reuse (Sci­en­tific Data; Jour­nal of Open Psy­chol­ogy Data). A pa­per in the lat­ter has al­ready been cited 17 times in un­der three years – nearly all these ci­ta­tions rep­re­sent new dis­cov­er­ies, some­times on top­ics un­re­lated to the orig­i­nal re­search.

Wait – open science sounds just like the way I learned in school that science works. How can this be new?

Un­der the sta­tus quo, science is shared through a sin­gle ve­hi­cle: Re­searchers pub­lish jour­nal ar­ti­cles sum­maris­ing their stud­ies’ meth­ods and re­sults.

The key word here is sum­mary; to write a clear and suc­cinct ar­ti­cle, im­por­tant de­tails may be omit­ted.

Jour­nal ar­ti­cles are vet­ted via the peer re­view process, in which an edi­tor and a few ex­perts as­sess them for qual­ity be­fore pub­li­ca­tion. But – per­haps sur­pris­ingly – the pri­mary data and ma­te­ri­als un­der­ly­ing the ar­ti­cle are al­most never re­viewed.

His­tor­i­cally, this made some sense be­cause jour­nal pages were lim­ited, and stor­ing and shar­ing ma­te­ri­als and data were dif­fi­cult.

But with com­put­ers and the in­ter­net, it’s much eas­ier to prac­tise open science. It’s now fea­si­ble to store large quan­ti­ties of in­for­ma­tion on per­sonal com­put­ers, and on­line repos­i­to­ries to share study ma­te­ri­als and data are be­com­ing more com­mon.

Re­cently, some jour­nals have even be­gun to re­quire or re­ward open science prac­tices like pub­licly post­ing ma­te­ri­als and data.

There are still some dif­fi­cul­ties shar­ing ex­tremely large data sets and phys­i­cal ma­te­ri­als (such as the spe­cific liq­uid so­lu­tions a chemist might use), and some sci­en­tists might have good rea­sons to keep some in­for­ma­tion pri­vate (for in­stance, trade se­crets or study par­tic­i­pants’ per­sonal in­for­ma­tion). But as time passes, more and more sci­en­tists will likely prac­tise open science. And, in turn, science will im­prove.

Some do view the open science move­ment as a re­turn to science’s core val­ues.

Most re­searchers over time have val­ued trans­parency as a key in­gre­di­ent in eval­u­at­ing the truth of a claim. Now with tech­nol­ogy’s help it is much eas­ier to share ev­ery­thing.

Why isn’t open science the de­fault? What in­cen­tives work against open science prac­tices?

Two ma­jor forces work against adop­tion of open science prac­tices: habits and re­ward struc­tures.

First, most es­tab­lished re­searchers have been prac­tis­ing closed science for years, even decades, and chang­ing these old habits re­quires some upfront time and ef­fort. Tech­nol­ogy is help­ing speed this process of adopt­ing open habits, but be­havioural change is hard.

Sec­ond, sci­en­tists, like other hu­mans, tend to re­peat be­hav­iours that are re­warded and avoid those that are pun­ished.

Jour­nal ed­i­tors have tended to favour pub­lish­ing pa­pers that tell a tidy story with per­fectly clear re­sults. This has led re­searchers to craft their pa­pers to be free from blem­ish, omit­ting “failed” stud­ies that don’t clearly sup­port their the­o­ries.

But real data are of­ten messy, so be­ing fully trans­par­ent can open up re­searchers to cri­tique.

Ad­di­tion­ally, some re­searchers are afraid of be­ing “scooped” – they worry some­one will steal their idea and pub­lish first. Or they fear that oth­ers will un­fairly ben­e­fit from us­ing shared data or ma­te­ri­als with­out putting in as much ef­fort. Taken to­gether, some re­searchers worry they will be pun­ished for their open­ness and are scep­ti­cal that the per­ceived in­crease in work­load that comes with adopt­ing open science habits is needed and worth­while. We be­lieve sci­en­tists must con­tinue to de­velop sys­tems to al­lay fears and re­ward open­ness.

I’m not a sci­en­tist; why should I care?

Science ben­e­fits ev­ery­one. If you’re read­ing this ar­ti­cle now on a com­puter, or have ever ben­e­fited from an an­tibi­otic, or kicked a bad habit fol­low­ing a psy­chol­o­gist’s ad­vice, then you are a con­sumer of science.

Open science (and its cousin, open ac­cess) means that any­one – in­clud­ing teach­ers, pol­i­cy­mak­ers, jour­nal­ists and other non-sci­en­tists – can ac­cess and eval­u­ate study in­for­ma­tion. Con­sid­er­ing au­to­matic en­rol­ment at work or whether to have that elec­tive screen­ing pro­ce­dure at the doc­tor? Want to en­sure your tax dol­lars are spent on poli­cies and pro­grammes that ac­tu­ally work?

Ac­cess to high-qual­ity re­search ev­i­dence mat­ters to you. Open ma­te­ri­als and open data fa­cil­i­tate reuse of sci­en­tific prod­ucts, in­creas­ing the value of ev­ery tax dol­lar in­vested. Im­prov­ing science’s reli­a­bil­ity and speed ben­e­fits us all.


Open science can help speed sci­en­tific dis­cov­ery. When sci­en­tists share their ma­te­ri­als and data, oth­ers can use and an­a­lyse them in new ways, po­ten­tially lead­ing to new dis­cov­er­ies.

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