UCL Research


Coronavirus will strengthen Open Science

26 January 2021

The coronavirus pandemic has brought home the importance of Open Science to many people, but Dr Paul Ayris needed no convincing. As chair of LERU's Information and Open Access Policy Group for the past decade, he has long been a champion of this approach to research.  

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This article was originally published on the League of European Universities' website.

You say Open Science will be part of the ‘new normal’ after the pandemic. What is the connection?

The pandemic is a chance to show that Open Science practices, such as sharing the data from trials and investigations, make it possible to find successful treatments and develop successful vaccines quickly, for the benefit of society. So while the pandemic is an appalling threat, it's also an amazing opportunity to change research culture, so that we emerge from the pandemic stronger than when we went in.

You also draw a parallel with the Ebola crisis of 2016?

Simon Hodson, who is the chief executive of Codata in Paris, found that most of the data that was produced during the Ebola crisis about infections and routes to a cure was not open data, and therefore couldn't be shared. It was either in the wrong format, or the people who produced the data didn't understand that sharing and openness were important. I'd like to think that we are doing better this time, but we need time and research on this specific question to know for sure.

Your paper covers the EU's eight pillars of Open Science. Remind us what they are?

They are the future of scholarly publishing; FAIR data, which is to say data that is Findable, Accessible, Interoperable and Reusable; the creation of the European Open Science Cloud; education and skills; rewards and incentives; next-generation metrics; research integrity; and citizen science.

How much progress has been made implementing them?

As an academic community, we in Europe have come a long way in the last 10 years. I would have liked to get where we are now in five or six years rather than ten, but I've known from the beginning that changing the culture of universities and university researchers would take time.

What does that cultural change involve?

It's getting people to think differently, for example to say that we could be better researchers if we share our data, so that it can be viewed, tested, and commented on by other people. If your subject area doesn't have a culture of sharing, that's the last thing you are going to think about, but in terms of doing good research, that sharing and the ability to reproduce results is really important.

How much freedom do universities have to drive that change?

That depends on the area of Open Science. With journals, monographs and text books the current model is heavily weighted in favour of commercial publishing, and it's not within the power of universities to do things on their own. But in other areas of Open Science, universities have a great deal of power, if they choose to exercise it.

For example?

Many LERU universities are beginning to set up skills development training courses for early career researchers, to embed Open Science principles and practice. And universities can change the way they recognise and evaluate excellence in research on their own. That doesn't require publishers or funders to agree. Universities can just do it.

Is achieving cultural change becoming any easier?

At my own institution, University College London, we have done two things that have made it easier. First, we appointed a senior manager -- me, as it happens -- to be the Open Science lead for the university. It's my job to talk to other senior managers about Open Science and to win them over to changes in policy and practice. That leadership role, at a senior institutional level, is important if you are going to bring about change. Every LERU university has now been invited to appoint an Open Science ambassador to play a similar role.

And the second initiative?

The second was to set up UCL Press, the UK's first fully open-access university press. When our academics saw the large number of downloads for the books we published, and in particular how useful this would be for early career researchers, it made open-access very popular. Once we had won hearts and minds in this way, that made the cultural change easier when we were looking at more difficult things, such as evaluation and research integrity.

What makes research integrity difficult in this context?

One example is that most journals, and indeed many academics, do not want to publish negative results, because they think they are boring, and because they show that a hypothesis didn't work. But being able to see everything is an important part of research integrity, and in an Open Science world, negative results are just as important as positive results, because they inform your research choices.

What other challenges come to mind?

In the area of research data there is a great fear among universities that they will lose control if they sign over the rights to that data to commercial third parties who provide tools, services and platforms. We've made that mistake once, they think, with research publications and we mustn't make it again. So we have to think of ways that we can work together and collaborate to produce the platforms, services and tools that we need.

Such as the European Open Science Cloud?

Yes, the purpose of EOSC is to create a federated set of infrastructures that will allow countries and researchers in Europe to share their data and publications. To start with, the idea is to bring together existing infrastructure rather than create new infrastructure. Then phase two of EOSC would look for the gaps and ask how we can fill them. It's an important initiative, which is why LERU has agreed to become an observer in the new EOSC Association.

Dr Paul Ayris is Pro-Vice-Provost responsible for UCL Library Services & Open Science and Scholarship at UCL