Tuesday, 5 January 2021

A year in open research at York

Open research enables all aspects of the research cycle to be shared freely for others to reuse. Ben Catt talks about the rise of open research practice during the Covid-19 pandemic, and recent initiatives for open research at York. 

An open book on a wooden desk

2020 was a hugely disruptive year, to say the least, both for universities and across our broader society. The global Covid-19 pandemic has set new priorities for researchers in some fields whilst forcing others to make unexpected changes to their day-to-day work and adapt to new practices. 

In many areas there has been a significant uptake in engagement with open research. This can be broadly defined as an approach where research plans and outputs are made freely available online for others to access and reuse for any purpose. Open research goes beyond open access publication by seeking to open up all aspects of the research lifecycle, where possible. It is sometimes referred to as ‘open science’, but at York we promote the idea that open research can be applied across all disciplines in different ways - it is not necessarily limited to the sciences. 

You may have encountered or read about the open sharing of Covid-related data and preprints (early, unrefereed versions of papers) in response to the pandemic. These practices have encouraged transparency and reproducibility in biomedical research, enabling scientists to build upon each other’s work and to collaborate across disciplines and borders. You may also have taken part in a Citizen Science project, helping to track symptoms in the population or just as a productive way to spend time during lockdown. These projects have helped to open up research processes to members of the public, encouraging wider understanding and greater appreciation for such work. 

The Open Research Team’s Practical Guide offers further examples of open research methods and notes how different practices are being used to disseminate valuable research related to Covid.

A cultural shift

Open research culture has been developing steadily for decades (2021 marks the 30th anniversary of arXiv, the first preprint server) but has gathered huge momentum in the past couple of years. It has recently been recognised and endorsed by the UK Government in their Research and Development Roadmap (“We must embrace the potential of open research practices… so that reproducibility is enabled, and knowledge is shared and spread collaboratively”) and UNESCO in their draft Recommendation on Open Science (“a new paradigm for the scientific enterprise based on transparency, sharing and collaboration”). 

Research funders are also helping to drive this cultural shift. Wellcome have launched a new open access policy and their Wellcome Open Research platform helps to enable the rapid dissemination and open peer review of their funded research across different disciplines. UKRI is also finalising its new policy and will soon undertake a review of open research data and software policy and practice. Both organisations have endorsed Plan S, the Europe-wide initiative for full and immediate open access to research outputs:

“With effect from 2021, all scholarly publications on the results from research funded by public or private grants provided by national, regional and international research councils and funding bodies, must be published in Open Access Journals, on Open Access Platforms, or made immediately available through Open Access Repositories without embargo.” - The Plan S Principles


2020 was also a significant year for open research initiatives at York. In May we published a statement outlining the University’s commitment to (and management-level support for) the values, principles and culture of open research. The following month we hosted the York Open Research online launch event, featuring a keynote from Rachel Bruce (UKRI Head of Open Research), plus lightning talks from Professor Emma Marsden (Education), Emma James (Psychology) and Emma Rand (Biology) on different aspects of open research in their disciplines. 

We ran a survey alongside these initiatives to assess current levels of awareness and engagement with open research across the University. The survey was aimed at research staff, support staff and postgraduate research students but was open to responses from anyone at York (many thanks if you took the time to respond!). A copy of the full survey report can be found here.

Our survey said...

Simplified survey with a tick next to a smiley face
The survey results showed a correlation between levels of experience and the perceived importance of different open research practices. Open Access publishing and open licensing were, perhaps unsurprisingly, the most widely used practices and were also seen as the most important. An interesting outlier was open data, which was seen as relatively important (perhaps owing to an awareness of Covid data sharing) although most respondents had little or no experience of this in practice. 

Aside from these, most respondents had no experience of the majority of practices and did not know how important they were. Registered Reports, open/electronic lab books and pre-registration were the least used practices and were also seen as the least important. This may be because they are still confined to certain fields such as Psychology, although they are being adopted more widely as best practice is shared between disciplines.

The main barriers to open research were identified as lack of training, clarity and understanding. This was particularly evident in responses from support staff and students, as well as from Arts and Humanities respondents who commented that they did not see open research as relevant to their discipline. Lack of dedicated funding for open research was also identified as a main barrier, presumably referring to costs associated with open access publishing (APCs) although the funding landscape for open research is complex and varies significantly between disciplines. 

The survey offered useful initial evidence of activity (and non-activity) in many areas across the university. The additional comments provided by respondents were especially insightful and suggest that there is significant interest and enthusiasm as well as some trepidation and distrust towards open research practice. Efforts are now underway to establish a York Open Research community of practice to facilitate discussions and address some of the issues (and misconceptions) raised here. 

Looking ahead 

The role of Open Research Advocates will be key to achieving this grassroots-level engagement and leading by example. Advocates will become ‘local champions’ for open research and will be involved in developing and delivering discipline-specific training workshops, events and resources alongside Library staff. We plan to launch the Advocates scheme formally in the next couple of months, but you can email us for further information in the meantime if you are interested. 

A follow-up survey is planned for summer 2021 to assess whether perceptions have changed and whether levels of engagement and experience have improved as a result of our community support and advocacy initiatives. We are also planning an open research awards event to take place around the same time, helping to incentivise and showcase best practice from across the University.

The shift towards open research in response to Covid has been unprecedented and will outlast the pandemic in terms of its impact on the transparency, accessibility and reproducibility of research. This new approach will be of great importance when it comes to addressing future challenges, a view outlined by Robert Kiley, Head of Open Research at Wellcome, in a recent blog post

“We have many other huge challenges ahead of us – from climate change to mental health to other infectious diseases. All of them will require researchers working at the cutting edge of their field, with free, unfettered access to the research literature and the underlying data.” - Robert Kiley

We are excited to see this shift beginning to take place at York, and we look forward to working alongside our community of practitioners to foster a cross-disciplinary culture of open research in 2021.

Ben Catt is an Open Research Librarian and member of the University Open Research Operations Group. 

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