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Why We Need Open Science

Published onMar 04, 2022
Why We Need Open Science
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The Open Science movement is gaining momentum in German and international academia. An increasing number of academic journals, universities as well as funding institutions are implementing Open Science policies and strengthening their commitment to more transparency, accessibility and reproducibility in research. As Editor for Data and Statistics and Open Science representative at BEM, I want to give an introduction to the idea of Open Science, explain how essential Open Science is in solving great flaws in scientific practice, and how we at BEM live by the Open Science principles and integrate them in our initiative. 

Science is not perfect

To understand the background of Open Science practices, it is helpful to observe the discrepancy between the why and how of scientific research. 

Why do we pursue research? Generally, science intends to use and identify reliable methods, to build and organize knowledge about the world, ultimately advancing society and technology. However, as disciplines become ever more specialized and scientific literature has grown exponentially in the past decades [1], working on projects as a single researcher, laboratory, or even institution becomes unfeasible. Collaboration between research groups, and sharing data, outcomes, methods and knowledge, appears to be obligatory. Additionally, the internet has given researchers an easily and universally accessible tool to make this cooperation technologically possible and to disseminate knowledge to a global community. 

However, how we are pursuing research does not seem to follow these developments and subsequent imperatives to collaborate. Since funding for scientific research is distributed in very competitive processes, and positions in academia are scarce and almost always temporarily restricted, researchers are pressured to create a lot of output. The currency in academia is publications: the more, the better, and the higher the Journal Impact Factor, the more prestigious your research [2]. This has led to a culture of “publish or perish”, in which quality, originality and reliability of research is often compromised [3][4].

The discrepancy between the why and how of science has led to multiple problems. Besides focusing on overarching questions and problems within their respective fields that can best be answered by collaboration, researchers need to accommodate for the requirements of their own career path. Ultimately, this means that non-collaborative behaviour is promoted: E.g., not sharing one’s data or respective methods to not allow the community to reproduce and profit from one’s results — in other words: keeping the details for oneself to take the most profit from it. This makes research outcomes harder to replicate and therefore less reliable, which ultimately led to the so-called reproducibility crisis: it has surfaced that a large percentage of studies cannot be reproduced — respective studies in psychology and cancer suggest that only 10 to 40% of results [5][6] are robust in replication [7]. The potential danger that inconsistent evidence poses, especially in the medical field, underlines the necessity for better documented workflows and resource sharing.

Additionally, profit-oriented journals play a role in the growing inaccessibility of science. Many articles are hidden behind a paywall, making them accessible only for university members with the budget for cost-expensive subscriptions. Authors have to pay processing charges before publication, taking the financial responsibility of open access publishing on their shoulders[8]. Simultaneously, it is them who provide Peer-Review for journals, therefore contributing to the quality control of the articles and helping journals in a crucial step of scientific publishing — without any financial compensation. The current practice of Peer Review has been criticized extensively in the last year, as flaws in its reliability, transparency and quality have surfaced. This criticism has catalyzed the emergence of BEM and has been discussed in more detail in another article [9].

The current COVID-19 pandemic has turned the spotlight on the apparatus behind scientific publishing [10][11]. As the situation evolved quickly and global cooperation was crucial to prevent further spreading of the new virus, the time-expensive process behind peer reviewed publishing that often takes several months or even years seemed inappropriate to the urgency of recent developments [12]. Additionally, keeping crucial scientific knowledge that is relevant to health care providers and public health authorities behind paywalls raised concerns about current infrastructures and prioritizing publishing profits over the dissemination of potentially life-saving information.

In summary, members of the scientific community are navigating a gap between the current practices in science and a greater idea of integrity and scientific progress. Depending on the respective field, this gap might be wider or narrow, but it sure does exist in all specialties.

Open Science

Open Science is the counter movement to the divergence of the why and how in science. It entails six core principles [13][14]:

  • Open Data. All research data should to be shared for other researchers to reproduce findings and use them for other studies. Not only should data be shared, but also in a meaningful way: Rather than hiding information in supplementary tables or unordered files, data should be provided adherent to the FAIR principles. These claim that shared data should be Findable (e.g., via an Open Data repository), Accessible (Metadata needs to be provided), Interoperable (Accessible across different institutions), and Reusable (presented in a way that allows for re-use of data). [15]

  • Open Source. All programs used should follow the standards of Open Source, which means that they are free to use and distribute. This ensures that results can be reproduced easily [16]. An example for an Open Source program would be the programming language R, which has become standard in many disciplines to analyze and visualize data. Many statisticians and scientists distribute their code for specific projects or even software packages [17].

  • Open Methodology. Strongly intertwined with the principle of Open Source, Open Methodology aims at the transparent, understandable and accessible publication of analysis code and protocols to allow for a robust replication of studies [18].

  • Open Access. Research outcomes should be shared in a way that makes information accessible to all. First, this relates to the removal of paywalls via the publication in Open Access journals. There are different levels of Open Access, ranging from published preprints, over “green Open Access” which entails the publication of the accepted, peer-reviewed manuscript after the respective journal’s embargo, to “golden Open Access”, referring to access to the article directly via the journal’s official outlets[19]. As golden Open Access is the most reliable in terms of reporting corrections and retractions, as well as the closest to the Open Science principles, this is the desired solution. A core document for Open Access in the Open Science movement is the Budapest Declaration, which holds further insight and demands to Open Access publishing [20].

  • Open Peer Review. To increase transparency in the publication and review process, Open Peer Review aims to provide full transparency of the peer review amendments. This includes that reviewers and authors are aware of the other’s identity [21], as well as the publication of the review letters after publication, and the possibility of a broader audience to participate in the peer review process [22].

  • Open Educational Resources. Knowledge or other resources that can be used for educational purposes should be accessible in a way that allows to alter the resource accordingly and redistribute to respective audiences [23].

By contributing to better reproducibility of research outcomes, Open Science has the potential to address the current replication crises in psychology and cancer research. Additionally, it is the foundation to build new infrastructure and frameworks that allows for better practices in scientific publishing.

In the past years, the Open Science community has build both international organizations such as the Center for Open Science (COS), the Open Science Framework (OSF), as well as numerous local Open Science initiatives to spread awareness and advance the idea of Open Science. Many funding organizations such as the Swiss National Fund [24] or the Wellcome Trust [25] have set up their own Open Science branches and policies, demanding the publication of data and research outcomes in accordance to Open Science frameworks.

Open Science at Berlin Exchange Medicine

BEM as initiative is committed to the idea and principles of Open Science. By allowing students to engage in scientific publishing during early stages in their career, we are providing a platform to navigate and understand science. Additionally, we want to share resources to facilitate putting the principles of Open Science into action. In our Peer Review Courses and future fellowship program, we offer structured education and further insight into the processes behind scientific publishing. Peer Review at BEM follows the idea of Open Peer Review, as information and reviews themselves are published, and we are inviting a broader community to comment on and engage in reviews. Within our journal, we have integrated Open Science into our submission guidelines, encouraging student researchers to make their data and analysis code publicly available.

An argument can be made that student research can contribute meaningfully to scientific literature. It is often in undergraduate research projects that replication studies are conducted. The reporting of these outcomes is crucial to deconstruct the replication crisis [26]. As a student journal, we are giving students the tools and the infrastructure to make their outcomes accessible.

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