Building Blogs of Science

Open Access Week 2014

Posted in Environment and Ecology, Health and Medicine, Science, Science and Society by kubke on October 25, 2013

What do brain machine interfaces and Open Science have in common?

They are two examples of concepts that I never thought I would get to see materialised in my lifetime. I was wrong.

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Kiwi Open Access Logo by the University of Auckland, Libraries and Learning Services is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

I had heard of the idea of Open Access as Public Library of Science was about to launch (or was in its early infancy) . It was about that time that I moved to New Zealand and was not able to go to conferences as frequently as I did in the USA, and couldn’t afford having an internet connection at home. Email communication (especially when limited to work hours) does not promote the same kind of chitter-chatter you might have as you wait in cue for your coffee – and so my work moved along, somewhat oblivious to what was going to become a big focus for me later on: Open Science.

About 6 years ofter moving to New Zealand things changed. Over a coffee with Nat Torkington, I became aware of some examples of people working in science embracing a  more open attitude. This conversation had a big impact on me.  Someone whom I never met before described me a whole different way of doing science. This resonated (strongly) because what he described were the ideals I had at the start of my journey; ideals that were slowly eroded by the demands of the system around me.  By 2009 I had found a strong group of people internationally that were working to make this happen, and who inspired me to try to do something locally.  And the rest is history.

What resonated with me about “Open Science” is the notion that knowledge is not ours to keep – that it belongs in the public domain where it can be a driver for change. I went to a free of fees University and we fought hard to keep it that way. Knowledge was a right and sharing knowledge was our duty. I moved along my career in parallel with shrinking funding pots and a trend towards academic commodification.  The publish or perish mentality, the fears of being back-stabbed if one shares to early or too often, the idea of the research article placed in the “well-branded” journal, and the “paper” as a measure of one’s worth as a scientist all conspire to detract us from exploring open collaborative spaces.  The world I walked into around 2009 was seeking to do away with all this nonsense. I have tried to listen and learn as much as I can, sometimes I even dared to put in my 2 cents or ask questions.

How to make it happen?

cc-by Mariano Kamp on Flickr

The biggest hurdle I have found is that I don’t do my work in isolation. As much as I might want to embrace Open Science, when the work is collaborative I am not the one that makes the final call. In a country as small as New Zealand it is difficult to find the critical mass at the intersection of my research interests (and knowledge) and the desire to do work in the open space. If you want to collaborate with the best, you may not be able to be picky on the shared ethos. This is particularly true for those struggling with building a career and getting a permanent position, the advice of those at the hiring table will always sound louder.

The reward system seems at times to be stuck in a place where incentives are (at all levels) stacked against Open Science; “rewards” are distributed at the “researcher” level. Open Research is about a solution to a problem, not to someone’s career advancement (although that should come as a side-effect).  It is not surprising then how little value is placed in whether one’s science can be replicated or re-used. Once the paper is out and the bean drops in the jar, our work is done. I doubt that even staffing committees or those evaluating us will even care about pulling those research outputs and reading them to assess their value – if they did we would not need to have things like Impact Factors, h-index and the rest.  And here is the irony – we struggle to brand our papers to satisfy a rewards system that will never look beyond its title. At the same time those who care about the content and want to reuse it are limited by whichever restrictions we chose to put at the time of publishing.

So what do we do?

I think we need to be sensitive to the struggle of those that might want to embrace open science, but are trying to negotiate the assessment requirements of their careers. Perhaps getting more people who embrace these principles at staffing and research University Committees might at least provide the opportunity to ask the right questions about “value” and at the right time. If we can get more open minded stances at the hiring level, this will go far in changing people’s attitudes at the bench.

I, for one, find myself in a relatively good position. My continuation was approved a few weeks ago, so I won’t need to face the staffing committee except for promotion.  A change in title might be nice – but it is not a deal-breaker, like tenure. I have tried to open my workflow in the past, and learned enough from the experience, and will keep trying until I get it right. I am slowly seeing the shift in my colleagues’ attitudes – less rolling of eyes, a bit more curiosity.  For now, let’s call that progress.

I came to meet in person many of those who inspired me through the online discussions since 2009, and they have always provided useful advice, but more importantly support.  Turning my workflow to “Open” has been as hard as I anticipated.  I have failed more than I have succeeded but always learned something from the experience. And one question that keeps me going is:

What did the public give you the money for?

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