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Open Access and Open Science: The Call for More Transparency in Science

By November 26, 2018No Comments

In May of this year, a group of Swedish universities made the decision not to renew their contracts with publishing giant Elsevier.1 To researchers who rely on these journals for their day-to-day work this may seem like a drastic move, but this new stand-off is part of a movement toward an open-access model in publishing research. Sweden is just one of several European countries where institutions have made similar moves in the past couple of years.2,3 These actions are a result of a much larger push for open science, an umbrella term referring to the movement to make every step of the scientific process available to any curious individual within any level of society.

The connection between open access and open science is clear, but removing paywalls to publications is just the tip of the iceberg. Open science extends to examples such as open source software, online lab notebooks, and even to the concept of ‘citizen science’, in which the public is involved in data collection. The response to open science has been varied across institutions and countries. There are multiple arguments against it including: fear of being ‘scooped’, loss of patenting ability, and the possibility of disseminating poor quality data in large quantities. On the other hand, supporters of open science cite a need for increased integrity in research, whereas increased dissemination will allow for better replication and validation of experiments, as well as more efficient collaboration between researchers. Finally, since much of research is publicly funded, it’s believed that the public has a right to the information gained from research.

Open science should not be limited to a debate between scientists. The inability to replicate published experiments due to insufficient details in methodology doesn’t just harm scientific process, but also the public’s trust in science. As researchers, we forget that many people’s exposure to the scientific method is the linear model we learn in middle school: we make a hypothesis, perform an experiment, and draw a conclusion. Any researcher will tell you this is an oversimplification of the entire process. In fact, the complexities of research methodology and analysis are why even scientists in the same field don’t always see eye to eye.  Open science provides a chance to increase scientific literacy to non-scientists – not just in terms of what we know, but how we know it.

There are limits to how far open science can go: the right to privacy becomes an important consideration when dealing with human samples, and maintaining the infrastructure required to deal with the amount of data constantly generated in science is also an issue. In certain fields – particularly biomedical research – it may take years to see whether open science truly has a measurable impact on the progress of research, the public trust in science, and general scientific literacy. Under Trudeau’s leadership, there has been much rhetoric for open science within government research.4 Cynics may argue that the current mantra is purely political, used to garner electoral support in the last election by opposing the much more stifling approach used by former Prime Minister Harper. Regardless, this discussion provides a useful push for more Canadian universities to consider how they too can contribute towards the open science movement without compromising the integrity of their research.  And as the researchers at these institutions, it’s up to us to take the first step.