Essential Science: Call for scientists to open up data

Posted Oct 31, 2016 by Tim Sandle
The last week in October has seen the launch of ‘open access’ week, encouraging scientists to open up data for public scrutiny. This has triggered a fresh debate about what this means and how it can be implemented.
Access to data might seem like are relatively dry subject for this week’s Essential Science feature, but it is a hot issue within the science community and it impacts the general public. Digital Journal, for example, runs several science features a week. Many of these features seek to link the article to the original science paper. Sometimes these are ‘open access’, which means the inquiring reader can pursue the research in detail, should they wish; in other cases the science papers are hidden behind a paywall.
Despite the growth in open access to journals and websites that allow scientists to post their research and papers, a considerable volume of science papers remain hidden behind website paywalls or research is published in print or digital media for which a hefty subscription is required. How much science should be open and how this can be encouraged further is a subject of regular debate. The debate intensifies each year around open access week.
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International Open Access Week (#OAWeek2016) has been held during October for several years (starting in 2008). Each year features a variation on the theme of open data. The 2016 event focused on ‘Open in Action’, with an intention to encourage “all stakeholders to take concrete steps to make their own work more openly available and encourage others to do the same.”
Reviews into the degree of open access, in which research and data are published freely on the web rather than hidden behind paywall or only accessible through costly journal subscriptions, give a mixed picture. For example, recent research by Elizabeth Gadd and Denise Troll Covey reveals that any increase in open data is being outstripped by the proliferation of restrictions that accompany self-archiving policies.
One obstacle to scientists moving to open access journals is the reputation of specific journals. Many journals considered of high standing are those that require a paid subscription, and this is not something that can be immediately addressed.
A further obstacle, and point of confusion, is what data can be legally shared. A recent poll found more than half of academics who have openly shared their data are unsure about the licensing conditions of doing so.
In addition, many scientists are worried, according to researcher Heather Coates, “about how their publication choices might affect their case for promotion and tenure.” So going with open access puts information in the public domain and makes the science more accessible, but the standing of the researcher may fall if he or she is seen as not publishing with the more eminent journals.
File photo: A technician undertaking a test in Tim Sandle s laboratory.
File photo: A technician undertaking a test in Tim Sandle's laboratory.
To help promote open access for research funded in the U.K., Research Councils UK (RCUK) has announced the open access block grant allocations for 2016/17, worth a total of £14 million ($16 million), to be distributed across 79 institutions.
A significant challenge to this could be generational. In a review by Laura Czerniewicz, the academic points out that younger people are more expectant of data and information being provided for free. This is a trend seen with social media, and has parallels with many media outlets opening up and dropping paywalls, allowing users to access all of their content. Instead of charging subscribers revenue comes from advertising.
As an example of some of the activities taking place as part of Open Access Week, Philip Cohen of the University of Maryland has called upon social scientists to follow the example of natural science to open up data and papers. Cohen has introduced a platform called SocArxiv, which is a fast, free, open paper server to encourage wider open scholarship in the social sciences.
In a second example, Alexander Naydenov has established a service called PaperHive. This web platform has some 1.2 million academic articles and books. The platform is interactive and encourages readers to engage in structured discussions in real time.
A related issue to making papers available is the sharing of data between institutions. Data sharing helps research collaborations to take place and it helps to drive developments forwards. Some institutions are worried about data security. Two universities have overcome this through a new network. Cardiff and Swansea, two welsh universities, have successfully accessed sensitive data sets between the institutions via a safe share pilot. This is a JISC secure encrypted overlay network that also saves time and resources.
It can be seen that open access is a complex subject, with several permutations and some legal issues as well. In the long-term open access is to be encouraged, otherwise there is a danger that scientific knowledge ceases to teach or inspire and becomes unreachable instead.
This article is part of Digital Journal's regular Essential Science columns. Each week we explore a topical and important scientific issue. Last week we looked at how the immune system can be developed to combat malaria. The previous week we looked deep into the solar system to assess which planetary moons might contain underground oceans (and whether life could exist within these oceanic lakes.)