Open season in science

03 November 2014
By Sarion Bowers

Open-access online journals have transformed science publishing. Credit: Shutterstock, Jocic

Open-access online journals have transformed science publishing. Credit: Shutterstock, Jocic

The past decade has seen a fundamental change in science culture and the way scientists operate.

The fear of being scooped and a strong sense of competition traditionally led to researchers carefully guarding their data and resources, sharing only with trusted and known collaborators, before they published their research in journals that people had to pay to view. Now, times are changing and a new paradigm of openness is coming into play.

The idea that everyone, including non-scientists should be able to access the fruits of research has been around for a long time but it has really taken hold in the past few years with the development of open-access journals, which cover their publication costs and profits by asking authors to pay to publish rather than charging readers. This model of publishing has become popular and, according to the Directory of Open Access Journals, there are now more than 10,000 open-access journals offering more than 1.7 million articles, from social anthropology to quantum physics.

However, the ethos of openness has extended far beyond the creation of a new publishing model and researchers increasingly are sharing their data sets and their resources and are even creating data and resources with the primary goal of sharing them as widely as possible; both to benefit the greatest number of people and to engage the public in their research. This open-access attitude to data was a founding principle of the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, as it raced to sequence the human genome and to ensure that data was open to all.

Increasingly, researchers are discussing their work on social media and in the process they are opening up a dialogue with the public. The view that science is best protected by secrecy and by shielding it from a public, who must be told what is good for them, is being replaced with the idea that science is strongest when it works for society and is guided by societal input.

Perhaps the most striking example of this change is in the discussions about animals in research; an area that has traditionally been explored very cautiously. Secrecy was considered necessary to protect both research and the people who worked with animals. Now however, universities and research institutes, including the Sanger Institute, are keen to have the public see their animal work and judge this work for themselves.

Although there is much to be celebrated in the opening up of science, there are pitfalls. Traditionally, we expect journals to select the best papers based solely on peer review, so a conflict arises when a journal is at once responsible for ensuring rigorous peer-review of articles and at the same time making their profit from authors paying to have their articles published. It has been argued that this conflict risks undermining the peer-review process and causing a reduction in standards.

In addition, openly sharing data may encroach on individuals’ rights to privacy. Here at the Sanger Institute we deal with genomic data and as our understanding of the human genome improves, the risks associated with openly sharing genomic data increase. A balance has had to be struck between the principles of openness and the need to protect the individuals who donate samples to a study. As a result, the majority of human sequencing data at the Sanger Institute is not entirely open but instead is in a managed database that researchers can access if they have the necessary approvals and permissions.

The move towards openness is now being driven by the organisations that fund research in science, the social sciences and the arts and humanities across the UK. The Wellcome Trust is at the forefront of these changes and as a result there are a number of policies in place at the Sanger Institute that are designed to ensure all data generated is shared as speedily as possible, with strict timelines in place for deposition of sequencing data in the various databases.

Furthermore, researchers funded by the Wellcome Trust, including all those at Sanger Institute, are required to publish in journals that are either entirely open access or allow deposition of the article in an open-access database within six months of publication, and authors are expected to put the relevant identifiers in these papers that will allow other researchers to access their data.

The change in scientific culture towards openness is a recognition that the public are interested in research and discerning in their support of it. Science thrives when supported by the public; allowing the public and researchers to access work produced by Sanger Institute will help its researchers continue to provide the best science that is most beneficial to society.

Sarion Bowers is the Research Policy Advisor at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute. She has a PhD in Biochemistry. Before joining the Institute she did postdoctoral fellowships in Leeds and Connecticut. She recently completed an MSc in Science and Technology Policy, in which she researched the adoption of genomics into the NHS.

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