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Looking towards a more open dissemination of scientific knowledge

open science and open access

Rewind to December 2019-January 2020, Wuhan, China. Panic spread like wildfire along with a contagious pneumonia-like infection. Coronavirus was identified as the cause of COVID-19 disease, and the medical fraternity was clueless as to how to curb its proliferation. The WHO soon declared a pandemic. The number of casualties soared every passing day, creating a global socio-economic disruption. The scientific and the medical communities faced the brunt of having to find a solution for this life-threatening disease at the earliest.

Enter open science. Chinese scientists posted the coronavirus genome sequence in The Lancet as an open access (OA) publication. This enabled German scientists to develop a screening test for COVID-19 that was then shared by the WHO worldwide. 

Nearly 117 organizations, including journals and funding bodies, committed to providing open access to COVID-19 research data. Thousands of valuable research articles and protocols were also made freely accessible to the public through CORD-19 (COVID-19 Open Science Dataset).

Scientists and researchers couldn’t have accomplished this enormous feat of invention and administration of vaccines without open science. We are still working towards dealing with the newly emerging, dominant variants of the virus, and open science is facilitating this operation for faster results.

Learn more about some of the journals, institutions, and societies that have made remarkable contributions to open access and open science —  The Microbiology Society, BMJ, SAGE Publishing.

The interlink between open science and open access

Open science is a movement that strives to bring transparency to research and make it freely accessible to everyone. It enables reuse, reproducibility, and effective dissemination of research and the data involved. Open science fosters inclusivity and equity. It redefines the way scientific research is done and accelerates solutions to ongoing crises.

Open access provides unrestricted access to research information through journals or books as opposed to paid, subscription-based journals.

Some of the elements of open science include open access books and scholarly journals, open lab notes, open software, open databases, resources, and tools. In essence, open access is a subset of the broader mission of open science

From the COVID-19 pandemic example, it is clear that open access is the foundation to achieve faster and better research through the open science movement.

Challenges in open science and ways to overcome them 

There is an ever-growing need to democratize science and transform the way research is carried out. 

Statistics show that the annual cost to the European economy of not having FAIR (Findable, Accessible, Interoperable, and Reusable) research data is nearly 10 billion euros. 

Despite the increasing demand for accessible knowledge, several factors pose challenges in implementing open science. A big step towards liberating scientific research is to address the following challenges.

Misconceptions about open access resources

There is a common misconception that open access resources are lacking in quality. This discourages new scholars from using OA journals and books as platforms to publish their work. In some instances, OA articles are disregarded by qualified, traditional peer reviewers, ultimately preventing newcomers from utilizing OA for better reach and a higher Impact Factor.

A socio-cultural transformation is required within the academic society to accept that high-quality open access resources are on par with the content from prestigious, subscription-based journals.

Awareness of open science must begin with the institutions and universities that mark the starting point of a researcher’s career.

Economic challenges associated with open access

Open access resources are available free of cost for the readers. This system is balanced by procuring the Article Processing Charge (APC) from authors. The APC covers the end-to-end publishing fees for an article, paid by the author, usually through institution funding or grants. In cases where institutions lack the funds to cover these charges, the open access model becomes a challenge.

Researchers consider the high publishing cost an important factor restricting them from publishing their works in OA journals and books. However, according to a study of 10,300 OA journals from 2011 to 2015, 71% of OA journals did not charge an APC at all. Some examples of OA journal publishers that do not charge author fees include the Microbiology Society, the Open Library of Humanities, and SCOAP3. And a majority of the publishers that do charge APCs, such as eLife and Royal Society Open Science, offer waivers for authors with financial limitations. Such waivers contribute towards making research more equitable as they enable researchers from low-income nations to publish in these OA platforms.

The need to recognize open science adoption

Typically, rewards and recognition for researchers are based on metrics like citations and the impact factor of the journals they publish in. It is to be noted that not every OA journal is associated with an impact factor. Therefore, contributors to OA journals without an impact factor will not be recognized, and the quality of their work could come under question. This may be a major reason for researchers’ unwillingness to publish in open access journals.

Also, according to studies, lack of rewards or recognition is one of the reasons why researchers hesitate to proceed with open science

Incentivizing the contributors of open science could be insisted upon, both at an institutional level and on an international scale. Institutions can include an individual’s contributions to open science as one of the evaluation criteria for recruitment and promotion decisions. Awards and prizes can be considered as a way to recognize the best contributors to open science and promote it among other researchers.

Openscienceregistry.org maintains a database for the initiatives undertaken by various stakeholders in the research community to incentivize open science. Universities such as the University of Oregon and Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich value job candidates that follow transparent research practices. As part of a value-based metric, some universities like the University of Wisconsin–Madison use transparent research and contribution to open science as an important factor in promotion decisions and tenure evaluation.

The lack of infrastructure to support open science

In this data-driven age, massive amounts of information have to be shared to bring openness to the research. The lack of efficient infrastructure to store and disseminate research data is one of the constraints to open science.

Open, interoperable, effective, and secure infrastructure is needed to handle the abundance of data. Governments around the world ought to allocate dedicated funds to seamlessly disseminate resources through open e-infrastructure.

Exclusive software, tools, high-speed internet, databases, data centers, cloud repositories, and AI-enabled data management are some of the new-age open e-infrastructure components. Open e-infrastructure is not a single device but a vast digital framework that allows interoperability between nations. This could improve the functionality and results of open science that support collaborative work. Open e-infrastructure along with policies that support its implementation can help achieve open science.

Data and intellectual property security challenges

In the mission to attain openness of research, one cannot compromise on personal or sensitive information. With open data comes the constraints of policy violations of sensitive data sharing. Open data without governance policies can be detrimental to the purpose of working towards attaining open science.

Openness should be backed by ethical data management of sensitive information. On that account, open data must comply with the data protection laws of the specific region.

GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) 2018 of the EU ensures the protection of personal data while allowing its lawful exchange and flow. It imposes strict penalties on those who violate privacy standards. The GDPR strives to strike a balance between data privacy and open science.

The need for supporting and regulatory policies

Open science aims to democratize research results, resources, and tools. Knowledge must be transparent and accessible to everyone, and barriers to information must be removed. The secrecy surrounding research results, patents of life-saving medicines, and monopoly of knowledge can hinder the advancement of society and humankind.

For the open science movement to be successful globally, it is critical for governments to mandate and implement clear policies and make research projects backed by the citizen’s tax money accessible to the public. 

Institutional and government policies can help regulate open science and its dissemination. The top three countries with the most open access policies and mandates are the USA, UK, and Turkey. 

Explore some of the open access policies adopted by the US, UK, Brazil, and more. 

Conclusion

Open science helps accomplish significant achievements in the advancement of humanity as a collaborative effort. Improving the rewards and recognition for open science and a positive attitude towards it across the research community are critical to bringing open science into the mainstream. Governments around the world ought to consider implementing robust open access and open science policies. This can help publicly funded open science gain momentum and participation, ultimately resulting in a positive impact on society.

And while open access is certainly a critical and worthwhile endeavor to make research widely available, it may not be the be-all and end-all of research democratization. The research community collectively needs to consider a variety of initiatives to liberate science from the clutches of age-old conventions that hinder its very existence and growth. 

References

Image courtesy: Designed by Freepik

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