Benefits and risks to careers of practicing open research

Technological advancements of the digital age have forced science to become cybercentric. As we celebrate Google's 20th anniversary and with more ‘tech-savvy’ scientists plugged-in to the web than ever before, it’s no surprise that the open research mantra is gaining momentum within the scientific community – but not all of us are open to change.
Published in Research Data
Benefits and risks to careers of practicing open research

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This post was my winning entry to the Better Science Through Better Data writing competition in 2018. Find out more here, and read my conference report here.

Open research, an approach to research that is collaborative, transparent and accessible, has been described by advocates as ‘the future of science’. Granting open access to academic literature, experimental methodology, datasets, and software code improves knowledge transfer, propagates scientific inquiry and facilitates multidisciplinary collaboration amongst researchers on a global scale. Sharing research benefits the individual by increasing the visibility of their work, generating citations and boosting media coverage which helps to build their professional reputation and relationships. The in-depth discussion created by open peer review enhances research quality by encouraging better-substantiated comments and constructive criticism whilst negating common problems of closed peer review, such as bias, conflict of interest and fraud.

Since open research can be independently verified, erroneous, fabricated or plagiarised data becomes easier to identify, preventing data maleficence and promoting data that’s robust, reliable and reproducible. What’s more, we can finally be positive about negative data that would otherwise be buried in the lab archive or hidden behind a journal paywall. Aside being able to identify false positive results, publishing negative data can save time and money as efforts are no longer wasted on replicating null findings and funding can be used more efficiently.

There’s no doubt that the aforementioned utilitarian arguments for open research are powerful. Research, funding and governmental organisations world-wide are increasingly adopting open-access mandates. Examples are the National Institutes of Health and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Over 5,000 journals are now signatories of the Transparency and Openness Promotion (TOP) guidelines, published in ‘Science’ in 2015. However, as journals and funders take the plunge into the open, many researchers fear for their career and show unwillingness to take the leap. The established academic, bound by the shackles of the traditional reward system, may feel compelled to cherry-pick data worthy of publishing in a high-impact factor journal just to earn the recognition required to secure future research grants, sometimes at the expense of scientific rigour and accuracy. Understandably, these academics are reluctant to change from the system that currently meets their needs in the competitive business.

Similarly, early-career researchers striving to make their mark, may be unsure whether to share or sequester their hard-earned results as they may feel vulnerable to being ‘scooped’ on prospective projects. They may also worry that their fragile reputation could be damaged if mistakes are found in their workings.

As a junior researcher, I empathise but firmly believe that openness is key to future success in science. The academic reward system must change to incentivise open research which means accreditation for all research outputs, no matter how big or small. We must become confident to showcase our research, warts and all. #IAmAResearchParasite

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