Open Research: further information
The terms 'Open Research' and 'Open Science' are now in the mainstream of academic discourse. They describe a range of practices relating to the conduct and communication of academic research. The core idea of Open Research is that the process and outputs of research should be made as open as possible, as early as possible. It brings peer review into the heart of the research process and gives the widest possible scope for others to engage critically with, and derive benefit from, research in all its dimensions.
Open Research is enacted in practices such as technology-enabled collaboration, Open Access publishing, and open publication of data. These practices are based on a strong philosophical and ethical foundation: the idea that knowledge produces greatest benefit when it exists in a commons and that knowledge produced by public funding should belong to and exist for the benefit of all.
The reproducibility crisis
The principles of Open Research apply across all domains of academic knowledge production, in the physical and life sciences, the social sciences, and arts and humanities. But a strain of the Open Science discourse is addressed to perceived dysfunctions in the way scientific research is reported and validated. Discussion of the so-called reproducibility crisis has highlighted high rates of failure to replicate results of published studies. Various reasons have been adduced for this, including poor reporting of research methods, weaknesses in study design and statistical analysis, and failure to provide access to data and software code supporting published results.
There have also been several highly publicised instances of scientific fraud, in which unscrupulous researchers have exploited the lack of transparency in the processes for validation and communication of research.
One postulated cause of these systemic weaknesses is the overvaluation of novelty by publishers and academic reward systems, which creates incentives for researchers that run counter to the imperatives of science. It is argued that if the incentive system were to put a higher premium on the ability of research to be verified, and if researchers were more motivated to make the hypotheses, methods and data supporting scientific findings open, they would be more likely to be produce reproducible and reliable research, and the risk of fraud would be reduced.
Open practices involve the use of digital technologies, tools and services to support collaborative research, engagement with stakeholder communities, and validation and re-use of research through open dissemination and peer review. This reflects the entry of online computing and social media into the mainstream of academic practice, and the influence they have brought to bear on how research is conducted and communicated.
Here we highlight key open practices:
Open Access is the principle that published research findings should be freely accessible and re-usable. Since the 1990s growing numbers of academics, research organisations, funders and some publishers have been campaigning for, and promoting access to, research through Open Access journals and publications repositories. Research Councils UK adopted an Open Access policy for its funded researchers in 2013. Open Access is now a major paradigm for the dissemination of academic research, and has considerably challenged the pay-to-view subscription journal model.
Research may produce other outputs, notably data and software. The genealogy of Open Research can also be traced back to the emergence in the 1990s of Open Source software licensing. Software source code distributed under an Open Source licence is made available to others so that the code can be freely accessed, used, modified and distributed.
Open research data
There has been a growing discourse about open research data, with funders, publishers, and research organisations adopting policies requiring the preservation and open sharing of primary data generated in research activities where these support research findings and have long-term value. There is now a whole ecosystem of data centres and data repositories supporting the preservation, sharing and re-use of research-generated data.
Open collaborative tools
Online computing and research tools allow the researcher to provide direct public access to information with ease. Electronic Lab Notebooks, online code repositories such as GitHub, and collaborative productivity tools such as Google Drive or OneNote can all be used to document and publish the primary materials of research.
Many of these tools are more than just a means to publish information about research; they create the possibility of a new kind of research, which extends beyond the closed group to a wider public, and enables the research process to be co-creative, massively collaborative, and to evolve in response to critical feedback.
Massive collaboration and citizen science
One of the foundational examples in this vein is the Polymath Project started by Cambridge mathematician Tim Gowers, a blog-based application of the crowdsourcing principle to the solving of mathematical problems. There has also been growing use of online technologies in support of citizen science and public engagement projects, such as those hosted by Zooniverse, where projects that have large amounts of data in need of human analysis can leverage the processing power of the online crowd.
Pre-registration of research
In some areas of research, notably in the health and psychological sciences, practices are becoming established for the registration of study hypotheses and protocols in advance of undertaking the research. The rationale for this is to provide transparency about the research methods used, and to eliminate poor practice, such as hypothesising after the results are known (HARKing) and cherry-picking of results to ‘create’ or exaggerate significance. Registration of clinical trials is mandatory in many countries, and growing numbers of researchers are using platforms such as the Open Science Framework to register study protocols.
Public registration of hypotheses and protocols can establish the priority of a research approach and safeguard the integrity of results. Various models for introducing formal peer review of research processes into earlier stages of the research pathway have also emerged. This can arguably increase the quality of study design and the reliability/reproducibility of results. A number of publishers now offer registered reports options, via which researchers can submit a study design for peer review and on acceptance receive a commitment from the journal to publish the final results.
Recent years have seen a new wave of growth in preprint servers and journal publishers, which allow early communication of research findings. The most well-known preprint server is arXiv, which dates its existence back to 1991 and is widely used by the physical and mathematical sciences communities; preprint servers have emerged on a similar model in other communities, such as bioRxiv.
Preprints are versions of scholarly publications made available prior to peer review; they can be a vehicle for communicating outputs that otherwise would not see the light of day until much later, and in some cases not at all, if their only route to publication was via the closed peer review mechanism operated by most scholarly publishers. Preprints do not supplant peer review, and in fact often coexist with an open peer review model, in which peer review takes place in public view after publication of the research output. Advocates of this model argue that it allows more research into the public domain without lengthy delays, and strengthens peer review by making the process transparent and accountable.
The Open Research landscape
Open Research principles are broadly accepted by many researchers, and are promoted in policies by funders, research organisations and publishers worldwide. In the UK the Research Councils were early proponents of Open Access publication of research results, and have more recently established strong policy positions in support of open research data. The UK has made significant contributions to developing the culture of Open Research and fostering norms of practice. In 2012 the Royal Society issued a seminal report, Science as an Open Enterprise, and in 2016 RCUK took a leading role in developing the Concordat on Open Research Data in collaboration with HEFCE, Universities UK and the Wellcome Trust, and with input from multiple stakeholder organisations in Higher Education.
Many universities have contributed to, and supported the case for, Open Research, and manage open access publications and data repositories for their researchers. Most publishers of scholarly research publish fully Open Access articles or offer authors Open Access publication options, and increasingly journals are adopting data availability policies, requiring the authors they publish to ensure supporting data are preserved and made accessible using data repositories, and clearly referenced from associated publications.
In recent years, some funders, especially in the health sciences, have established their own Open Research platforms for funded researchers to rapidly publish their results. These include Wellcome Open Research and Gates Open Research. Meanwhile the European Commission has announced that it will fund its own Open Research Publishing Platform to offer researchers a free and fast route to publication of both preprints and peer-reviewed articles; and it is in the process of developing a broader infrastructure for Open Research, the European Open Science Cloud.