Open Research in 2018, real or fake news?

I don’t know how many swallows make a summer, but the European Commission (EC) now follows the Gates Foundation, Wellcome Trust, the Irish Health Research Board, UCL and others in setting up its own open publishing platform. It is hard not to interpret this as a sign of increasing frustration on the part of research funders and institutions at the pace and cost of the change to open access. But is this the right move?

In 2013 the publishing entrepreneur Vitek Tracz saw his F1000 company set the foundation for the current trend by developing what would, in 2017, become Open Research Central, a general portal for open research publishing. This now lies behind most of the new publishing platforms being set up by funders and, to a lesser extent, research institutions.  

Tracz is well-respected in publishing circles, and has written trenchant critiques of the way research findings are prepared and communicated. He is committed to a deeper change than simply shifting existing journals to an open access model and that can make some researchers uncomfortable – it touches on the ways in which research is written, read and assessed, and in turn on the authors’ careers and reputations. While we don’t know who will win the contract for the EC platform, or indeed its future relevance for UK researchers, we can ask whether the Commission may unwittingly have signed up for more than it bargained.

A broader vision of open research

Much has been written about how research is assessed. There is perhaps a consensus that something is not right about it and that research indicators or metrics are implicated as both part of the problem and the solution. But a challenge for the EC and other funders going down the publishing platform route is that that they assess research for funding purposes. If they also run the platforms through which researchers publish, and thereby generate indicators that inform those assessments, isn’t that a conflict of interest?

The Commission argues not, pointing out that one reason for tendering for the publishing platform is to ensure that it is run independently by “an entity with very well recognised credentials as a scientific publisher.” And, while the headline objective does seem to be about the EC’s narrow aim for 100% open access by 2020, there is also an explicit wider commitment to include a broader range of research outputs, and to generate innovative research indicators from the platform, following the early example of journals like PLOS ONE and platforms like F1000 Research.

So, it seems that some of the largest research funders in the world, certainly in the life sciences, are putting their weight behind a much broader vision of open research than simply flipping journals to open access. Robert Kiley of the Wellcome Trust has said: “We can make the process faster and more transparent and make it easier for researchers to provide information that supports reproducibility,” and that “researcher assessment should be based on actual outputs – supported by article-level metrics and transparent comments from referees – rather than using the journal’s name as a proxy of quality.”

An author’s perspective

The actual publication process differs from that of most journals, in that both the paper and underlying data are (where possible) openly published after only initial checks, as “awaiting peer review”. Authors suggest possible peer reviewers who, if suitable, are invited to review the output openly on the platform. Following any number of revisions, once there are sufficient positive reviews, the output is given an official identifier and indexed in the major reference databases such as PubMed.

The intention is that more types of research output, including null and negative findings, will be made openly available more quickly, making the record of science reflect more accurately the actual practice. As well as looking forward, using new technologies to enable better research communication, in a sense this may also allow us to look back to parts of the “science wars” of the 1990s, when postmodernists (remember them?) argued with those who saw scientific findings as real and objective. Now, in an era of alleged and real fake news, the claim of researchers to offer a reliable route to truth (or, at least, to facts) is under scrutiny.  

That is the important context in which the EC and other funders are acting, because they may feel that their own reputations – as funders of good science – are potentially at risk. So, while Wellcome Open Research only has 155 outputs in it at the time of writing, and the tender specifications for the EC’s platform have not even been published, it is not unreasonable to see this as potentially a pivotal moment in research communication.

To take a parochial, UK, perspective, in the next few months the Government will likely take note of the directions being set by groups such as the Universities UK Open Access Coordination Group, the Open Research Data Taskforce, and the Forum for Responsible Metrics, so it may be that 2018 will be a significant year for open research.

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