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Open research is a tough nut to crack. Here’s how we can get started

Investment, training and incentives are required if the sector is going to rise to the challenge of truly embracing open research


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University of Bristol

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16 Dec 2022
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Research management

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Elsevier helps researchers and healthcare professionals advance science and improve health outcomes for the benefit of society.
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Steps towards open research in higher ed

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From genomics to economics, all researchers have an interest in research being rigorous and as open as possible, so that it can be tested and checked. Governments and funders around the world – notably this year the US government – are increasingly requiring this, but research institutions are often the ones left with the challenge of making it happen.

However, an instinct to compete, reinforced perhaps by incentives such as global rankings, can militate against shared solutions, even where these would be efficient and effective and ultimately better serve good research. This longstanding issue comes into sharper focus when trustworthy knowledge is at a premium in our social media-heavy world.

At the same time, research is evolving rapidly, with innovations in funding models and academic publishing. Many of our ways of working are showing their age, to say the least. The concept of the academic journal, for example, is 400 years old (although concepts such as peer review are more modern, having appeared a mere 100 years or so ago). Part of the recent evolution has included emerging consensus that the traditional, closed way of working – where only a brief synopsis of the results of a research process are made available, often in a manner that requires the reader to pay for access – is increasingly untenable.

Together, these two pressures converge to create a growing awareness that research (particularly publicly funded research) should be widely available, both for moral reasons (those who ultimately pay for it should be able to access it) but also for pragmatic reasons (wider access will drive progress, create efficiencies and improve quality). Funders and others increasingly require research to be as open as possible, and there are an increasing number of tools and platforms that enable this. We have moved beyond open-access publishing, with open research practices extended to sharing of code, data and other study materials.

But despite enthusiasm from funders, appropriate support for researchers is often lacking, perhaps because of the incentives that act against institutions finding shared solutions. Open research requires digital infrastructure combined with appropriate training. This is a team challenge – researchers, technicians and professional services staff (such as those working in library teams but also in staff development) need to work together to deliver this effectively.

How can institutions rise to this challenge?

Ensuring a comprehensive approach to open research is certainly not trivial, not least because of differences in the nature and implementation of open research across disciplines. Who will lead and coordinate this activity? Should this be an academic task or the responsibility of library teams? Ultimately, supporting open research requires investment – both in digital infrastructure and in the people who support it and deliver training. So, there will be a cost to institutions if they are to fully engage with the open research agenda, even if it is a cost that is likely to repay itself in terms of improved research quality, greater impact, more rapid knowledge transfer and so on.

And even if institutions do invest in open research, that alone will not necessarily allow us – as a sector – to achieve the full potential of open research. There is a risk that the approach taken by one institution will not be aligned with the approaches taken at other institutions. Researchers collaborate and move between institutions, so if ways of working are not aligned this will create friction and inefficiency. In an era of league tables and various assessment exercises, institutions have become focused on local solutions and strategies. But in some domains that inter-institutional competition holds us all back.

The solution, in our view, is collaboration.

Training in open research practices, for example, can (and should) be coordinated. To a degree it can even be centralised, in a similar way to how digital infrastructure can be centralised where that is appropriate (such as with Jisc). For example, train-the-trainer courses allow institutions to send trainers (perhaps drawn from both academic and professional services staff, and across career stages) to work together to develop individual workshops that are tailored to the local audience but share common elements that maximise interoperability. This, of course, will require institutions to contribute to a common effort – a very different approach to the local approach to training that is typical, but one that is ultimately likely to be both more effective and more cost-effective.

Similarly, incentives such as promotion criteria, open research prizes and so on can also be harmonised across institutions. Aligned promotion criteria will also serve to promote researcher mobility, if what is good for a researcher’s career (and for research) at one institution will also benefit them when they move to another. Offering open research prizes across multiple institutions – perhaps taking advantage of existing regional clusters – will reduce costs for individual institutions and also foster the sharing of effective and innovative approaches to open research across institutions, to mutual benefit. Plus, the impact of this training and these incentives can be monitored through targeted evaluation across all participating institutions, allowing for ongoing evaluation and benchmarking.

This is the model we have adopted in the UK Reproducibility Network’s Open Research Programme, funded for five years through the Research England Development Fund. The UK Reproducibility Network (UKRN) was established in 2019 to ensure the UK retains its place as a centre for world-leading research by investigating the factors that contribute to robust research, promoting training activities and disseminating best practice. We also work collaboratively with various external stakeholders to ensure coordination of efforts across the sector. We now include 65 local networks of researchers and more than 30 institutional members. The sector needs an intelligent and ongoing way to agree where it makes sense to centralise and coordinate – and what is best left to those closer to the research. Bodies such as the UKRN are well placed to broker that ongoing discussion.

Of course, research activity (and movement of researchers) is not confined to single countries. There is therefore a need for a supra-national dimension to collaborative approaches to training. In the past two years we have seen a number of other national reproducibility networks – modelled on UKRN but adapted to the specific national context – emerge in Europe and beyond. There are now 13 other national reproducibility networks and more in the process of establishing themselves. Representatives of these meet regularly to discuss common approaches and coordinate efforts. Their role is increasingly recognised by funders and policymakers, for example in the draft work programme for Horizon Europe.

Some countries, such as the Netherlands, now have open research programmes coordinated across policymakers and funders, institutions, academies and other stakeholders. This enables not only shared resources but also a shared commitment to working together. Getting the sector organised in this way makes it much easier to get the local support right for researchers, even though it will be hard to do this efficiently while respecting diversities in research and the autonomy of the actors. However, not doing it will only make it more difficult for researchers to do world-leading work.

Marcus Munafò is associate pro vice-chancellor of research culture at the University of Bristol, UK, and chair of the UK Reproducibility Network (UKRN) steering group.

Neil Jacobs is head of the UKRN Open Research Programme.

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Research management

Sponsored by

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Elsevier helps researchers and healthcare professionals advance science and improve health outcomes for the benefit of society.

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