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Students are the key to an open research culture

Convincing busy academics to adopt open research practices is hard work. Why not, asks Darren Rhodes, focus on what students are learning about the practice of science?
This article is more than 1 year old

Darren Rhodes is a Senior Lecturer in psychology at Nottingham Trent University, and is open research lead

The open research agenda represents a profound shift in how we investigate and think about the world.

It describes the combined and collaborative efforts to create a scientific process that is transparent and robust, through making code, software, and educational materials freely available, allowing global access to research findings and data whilst diffusing knowledge through advanced digital technologies.

As such, open research has a fundamental impact on core academic processes such as teaching, research, scholarship, and innovation. But how do we get researchers at our scientific and educational institutions to adopt open research practices and philosophy?

The answer could mean focusing on curriculum design for our students.

Teach first

The “information age” is giving way to the “open era”, where open and transparent research methods and findings become the default way of practising education and research. We need to act, think, and plan now to ensure that we, as an academic community, are ahead of the curve with a series of important pressure points that will change the academic landscape now and forever. Open Research policies have already had an impact on grant capture, academic publishing, teaching provision and materials, REF, degree accreditations, and so on. It is a storm that is welcome and refreshing – but a storm, nonetheless.

As in many other departments, at NTU Psychology, we have been thinking about how to shift towards a culture of open research. But let’s not beat around the bush: being an academic can be quite frustrating and difficult at times (and I realise that is an understatement). When a department or school wants to think about shifting towards an open research environment, I implore you to talk to as many staff and students as possible: to understand the worries and concerns some may legitimately have, but also to build a sense of community and togetherness when discussing what an open research culture shift even means or looks like to the institution or outside world.

I have met with countless research groups, doctoral students, associate deans, and library staff; and learnt so much by simply talking to human beings. Instead of imposing policies and actions in a dogmatic, (perceptively) draconian way; we have listened to the concerns staff have and factored those into our strategic action plan.

A constructive approach

Open research-themed breakdowns and pile-ons on Twitter are common-place, and I have oftentimes read blogs, papers, and even been present at conferences, where there has been an overly negative reaction to researchers who have unintentionally (but sometimes intentionally) made a faux pas with statistics, data availability or even the deep dark and frightfully concerning world of… formatting. This is not the way to change academic culture.

Self-professed open science efficacy, and statistical elitism will only drive people away from engaging in open research. From meeting with researchers across the career spectrum, the issue of being concerned that opening oneself up the internet (for want of a better phrase) may lead to Twitter meltdowns and hurting one’s career is a common concern – and I think well-founded. We need to create an environment where questioning statistical inferences, methods and data should be done from a constructive place. I suggest that by training our undergraduate students in open research philosophy and practice, we normalise being open to criticism in the future.

Academic freedom is important – we must not become the systems we deplore. As such, we are clear that we will never force anyone to do anything, but instead we give researchers the tools to engage in open research – but only if they wish. However, science (and research) is changing. The external pressures and climate of science will naturally move researchers towards open research practice, so we must be there to support staff when they want to engage.

Meeting you where you are

We are creating a deliberately flexible environment for staff, that provides workshops, seminars, external speakers, and optional resources that staff can sign up to at their own leisure. However, swollen academic workloads and burnt-out staff may never have the time to spend hours on converting to a fully open research lab – and that is ok. We must make the process of engaging in open science as time efficient as possible, where open research becomes an active part of the ecosystem within a department or school.

I believe the key is our students – and designing a curriculum where open research is taught-to and practised by them in every year of study. We have lectures on the philosophy of open research, and how it has really grown from the replication crisis in psychology; we use R (open source statistical software) for teaching statistics, Gorilla (an online experimental tool that allows collaborative experimental design and open materials) in research methods, our students complete preregistrations for all projects, and we also ask students to upload their data and code in a way similar to the Open Science Framework.

The environment we have created trains and encourages our students in Open Research culture, where students co-produce and co-create materials and analyses, with good habits and practice that they can take forward into the workplace or academia.

Filtering up

The idea is that creating a stimulating open research environment in our student-base will filter upwards, where students are helping train and engage our staff in open research. This approach provides both the resources and training to our staff from a top-down perspective – but also trains our students from the bottom-up. Our staff train the students, but most importantly, our students also train the staff.

For example, all our students engage in open research and complete (as one example) preregistrations. I have heard from several staff members who haven’t had time to look at preregistrations themselves, that they have learnt so much about them purely by working with students in research methods classes. Since adopting open research within our curriculum design, I have personally (as open research lead within NTU Psychology) received a huge increase in emails from staff, doctoral students, masters, and undergraduate students, all asking and being curious about open research: looking for support and guidance as they integrate this into their work.

Clearly open research is here, and now is the time to start preparing your lab, department, school or institution for the open era. Listen to your colleagues, understand their concerns and factor those worries into your own strategic plan for open research.

The real crux of my argument is that it is the students who will help drive this change, and not just research faculty, as they are a reservoir of untapped potential, and those who will be the ones on the frontline in the future. Investing in an open research curriculum design will not only help train staff, but also be the vanguard of change.

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