Wednesday, May 9, 2012

How open is open when it comes to scientific data?

Riding the data wave has been a popular theme in the science community lately – how much data we’re likely to be swamped with, where we should store it, how to identify it and how long to keep it. One topic that has been less under the spotlight however is open access. The implicit assumption seems to be that in scientific circles, data is already open to everyone, everywhere . But is this really true?  Where does open access leave top flight peer-reviewed journals that rely on subscription fees and university libraries to fund the publishing process? How reproducible are your results if only a restricted few can access the original data? And if you are a scientist in a developing country with poor access to published journals, how do you compete in a data-driven age of discovery and innovation?

A meeting hosted by ALLEA (ALL European Academies) in Rome last month on Open E-Infrastructures for Open Science addressed just these kinds of questions. ALLEA sent out a joint call to scientific communities and their institutions to take decisive steps towards open science and innovation, as a way to accelerate the discovery of solutions for Grand Societal Challenges. The European Commission is currently finalising a proposal to open up access to the results and raw data of research funded under Horizon 2020. Digital Agenda Commissioner, Neelie Kroes, said, “To make progress in science, we need to be open and share.” Pointing out that we now benefit from the ultimate sharing tool, the internet, she added, “We are just now beginning to realise how significant a transformation of science the openness enabled by ICT infrastructures can mean. We start the era of open science.” The EC’s ambitions do not just stretch to Europe. “We are working with international partners – the G8 but also major emerging economies – to come up with a global approach to make the world's scientific resources interoperate, and open to discovery,” said Kroes. “With these initiatives, we can create a resource to link up researchers and their data wherever they are, whatever their field.”

However, giving open access to data to researchers from any field, in any country is only part of the story. They also need to share the research findings themselves, as published in peer-reviewed journals, particularly when research is funded by the public but ideally for all scientific and scholarly research. The OpenAIRE e-Infrastructure hosts thousands of open publications that are used by researchers, funding bodies and the public worldwide.  The World Bank has decided it will make findings of the research it funds freely available, and the UK-based Wellcome Trust, a world leader in biomedical research funding, will soon launch a free online publication to compete with subscription-based journals. The Commission itself has decided to make all outputs from research funded under the EU's own Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation framework programme openly accessible. Part of this effort will include looking at the role of e-Infrastructures in supporting open access - providing the tools to do the job - but also at the role of rewards in incentivising researchers to actually use these tools to share.

Kroes did acknowledge some limits to the general drive for openness. In an age of rising identity theft, personal data must be protected and there may be some security reasons not to offer wide distribution. Papers on the bird flu virus H5N1 submitted to Nature and Science recently raised concerns in anti-terrorist agencies, as they showed that H5N1 can fairly easily mutate into a form that could spread rapidly among humans. Both Science and Nature were asked to remove some sensitive parts of the research that the agencies felt could benefit bioterrorists. Dr Philip Campbell, Editor of Nature, which has published the paper, has gone on record to say that the current process for deciding whether research should be censored in this way was “very, very problematic.” Open publishing repositories and journals will no doubt have to face this issue as well, not to mention balancing the need to defend private investments.

As Kroes pointed out, these cases should be the exceptions rather than the rule. “With the right infrastructure and the right approach, we can bring on a new age of scientific practice and discovery,” she went on to say. So "open science" means that data and research results should not sit behind walls, whether permanent or temporary – to beat the grand social challenges facing Europe and the world today, we all need to learn to play nicely, and share.

1 comment:

Catherine Gater said...

Interesting contribution to the debate from the publisher's point of view at