Making your research accessible

Does ‘open science’ support ‘open knowledge’?

By 19 February 2014

Open science, as we learn from Wikipedia, is the umbrella term for the movement to make scientific research, data and dissemination accessible to all levels of an inquiring society, amateur or professional. It encompasses practices such as publishing open research and campaigning for open access, which are generally percieved to make it easier to publish and communicate scientific knowledge and act as a precursor to ‘open knowledge’ that is clearly translated and understood.

Its advocates deplore the centuries-old process of the results of private research being reviewed by scientific peers and published, after some time, in academic journals that are often expensive, especially for developing economies, and which are generally only read by other scientists.  Open science on the internet allows for faster dissemination of research findings among a far wider audience without the costs of hard copy that are imposed by the near-monopolistic academic publishing industry.

Open science on the up

There are now supposedly about 13,000 scientific journals available in the Open Science Directory  and major organisations are adding to the momentum by joining the open science movement.  Microsoft Research has a policy that allows it to retain a license for research submitted to conferences or publishers in order to post it to a freely accessible online site as well.  The Yale University Open Data Access Project has entered an agreement with Johnson & Johnson that will enable scientists around the world to gain access to the company’s clinical trial data assets and the Harvard Open Access Project fosters the growth of open access to research.

Yet despite the growth and vibrancy of the open science movement, three questions arise; i) are researchers, and the institutions within which they carry out their work, adopting openness as much as would generally be deemed desirable?, ii) is open science any easier to absorb into policy formulation and professional practice than its earlier (closed)counterpart?, and iii) when knowledge is regarded as the understanding of information based on its perceived importance or relevance to a problem area, is openness alone sufficient for science to increase our knowledge? If open science can be shown to lead to better use of the knowledge that research generates then there’s a stronger argument in its support.

The impact of ICT4D research on policy and practice: Is it relavent to the researchers?

In my previous blog, I summarised a literature review of the impact of research on development policy and practice and outlined a range of activities that are deemed to contribute towards research impact that go beyond mere publication of the results.  In a follow up survey, I have asked researchers in my field (Information and Communication Technologies for Development – ICT4D) how they feel about these various aspects of achieving impact with their research.  Preliminary findings reveal the following:

“Respondents generally agree that the impact of their research is reflected by publications, but even more by its impact on policy and practice. However, the majority agree that their institutions emphasize peer-reviewed publications over communications with the public, and 75% agree that peer-reviewed publications are used to assess their performance. The vast majority agree that being an effective communicator is an important skill for an ICT4D researcher, yet only around one third make use of web 2.0 tools and social media in their research.”

“Whilst the majority agrees that research is important for influencing policy and practice, few of them interact with the users of their research and even less spend time advancing a political position or policy, or engaging in communication programmes targeted at policy-makers. Only half feel that their institutions encourage them to produce research outputs that reach a broad section of society, and only a quarter have conducted research into the demand for their research.”

Peer-review remains the most potent factor for incentivizing research activity

Coming back to the questions on open science; firstly, it would seem from my data that peer-review remains the most potent factor for incentivizing research activity.  In this regard, traditional publishing seems to carry more weight; as one observer has put it, the traditional published paper is still viewed as “a unit to award grants or assess jobs and tenure.”  Open publishing seems not yet to have acquired the prestige that its predecessor has. A colleague has recently launched a new – closed – journal for just this reason.  Secondly, researchers seem less inclined to take part in the various communication and engagement activities, including using the internet, that have been shown to be required for mobilizing research knowledge into the public sphere, in part at least because their employers seem not to require them to do so.

Open science is not the same as open knowledge

Whilst open science represents a major step towards greater and better public use of the knowledge that research generates we should be clear that it only goes part way towards mobilizing that knowledge within policy formulations and professional practice.  Open science is not the same as open knowledge if it remains locked behind academic language and is not conducted within processes that include greater engagement between researchers and those who can put their findings to good use; by integrating scientific findings into the contexts of their problems.

Image courtesy of renjith krishnan/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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