Eight ways your university can make research culture more open

Parveen Yaqoob and Robert Darby share eight actions institutions can take to foster a culture of research that is more accessible, transparent and reproducible

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University of Reading
17 September 2021
Advice on creating a university research culture that is accessible, transparent and reproducible
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Research often lacks full transparency and reproducibility, and poor research practices are increasingly picked up by the public, which is undermining trust in academia. Open research is research conducted with full transparency, in its design, methods and communication of outputs. Research practices that are “open” improve research quality and integrity, reuse by others and value for money. They increase public trust in research and protect against fraud.

Open research is an area that most, if not all, agree is important. However, creating a culture of openness can be challenging, especially with many competing demands and practical challenges. For instance, how many of your institution’s research outputs share the supporting data and code? Do your researchers always know how to identify and avoid questionable research practices?

Achieving greater openness requires long-term culture change. Here are eight key actions your university can take to stimulate that process.

1. Join or establish a national reproducibility network

Since the UK Reproducibility Network (UKRN) was founded, national reproducibility networks have been established in Australia, Germany, Slovakia and Switzerland, and the community is expanding. A reproducibility network is a peer-led consortium that promotes rigorous research practices through training and research improvement activities and dissemination of best practice and works with stakeholders to coordinate efforts across the sector.

Membership of the network requires the appointment of a senior academic as institutional lead, who reports to the pro vice-chancellor for research or equivalent and makes a minimum commitment of one day per week to the role. This ensures that open research has visible, high-level leadership within and outside the institution. If you do not have a national reproducibility network, consider setting one up.

2. Establish an open research working group

The working group should have the support of the pro vice-chancellor for research, or their equivalent, and should be led by a senior open research champion. It should include representation from your university’s professional services and the research community. The UKRN coordinates a network of open research working groups and provides guidance on how to set one up.

3. Create an action plan

An action plan, encompassing some of the actions proposed here and setting out measurable objectives to be achieved over a defined period, can give strategic direction to institutional effort. It can be a vehicle for securing engagement with open research objectives, bringing stakeholders and activities into strategic alignment, and obtaining resource to support activities.

4. Publish an open research statement

A number of UK universities have adopted statements of commitment to the principles and aims of open research. These articulate strategic objectives for the institution as a whole and expectations of researchers, and may be supported by explanatory information, links to relevant policies and practical guidance on using open practices. The process of developing and consulting on a statement brings an opportunity to engage the research community and secure buy-in from key stakeholders.

5. Run an open research competition

An open research award can celebrate best practice and incentivise researchers to identify and value their own open practices. Several universities have organised such competitions, and the UKRN has published a primer on running an open research award competition.

6. Develop an open research champions network

Institutions can cultivate allies in the research community who model good practice, amplify communications and propagate knowledge and skills within local networks. Examples of institutional programmes include the Cambridge Data Champions, Reading’s Open Research Champions, and York’s Open Research Advocates network. In the Netherlands, an Open Science Communities network has evolved and is spreading internationally. Champions can be supported with funding for activities, such as organising workshops and training, attending courses and events, and participating in open-research-related projects.

7. Develop support for research software engineering

Programming is widely used in research to generate, process and analyse data, and is often critical to reproducibility, but many researchers lack formal training in how to use software or support from trained professionals, with consequences for research quality. In recent years, institutions have established research software engineering support and training for researchers. In the UK, the Society for Research Software Engineering works to increase software skills in research and to champion the role of research software engineer.

8. Introduce open research criteria into recruitment, promotion, assessment and reward processes

Reforming academic systems to incentivise the use of open practices is critical. Recruitment, advancement and reward frameworks should enable researchers to evidence use of open practices, and open research should be built into research planning and monitoring. Introducing open research criteria into systems and processes will be a substantive project that needs to be led at the highest level.

Frameworks that might be adapted for institutional use include the UKRN hiring policies certification scheme and the European Union’s Open Science Career Assessment Matrix (OS-CAM), a modified version of which has recently been proposed as a national assessment framework in Norway.

The measures we outline here will not transform things overnight, but ongoing strategic action by institutions can gradually bring about the change in research culture that will drive up quality, integrity and reuse.

Parveen Yaqoob is pro vice-chancellor (research and innovation) and Robert Darby is research data manager, both at the University of Reading.

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