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Social Science Matters: Open Science

On 20 September 2019, the opening drinks for the Open Science Community Leiden will be held at the Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences. Open science is the approach to science aimed at making scientific research accessible, reproducible, and freely available to people within and outside the academic community. What do our researchers have to say about this topic? What benefits do they think open science may have now and in the future, and what challenges lie ahead?

Anna van 't Veer

‘It would be wonderful if in the future we could leave out the word 'open' and just call it 'science' again...’

- Anna van 't Veer, Psychology

For me, Open Science stands for transparency: being open and honest about the scientific process. Examples of open research practices include replication research, sharing data and research tools, open peer-review procedures, and open-access publishing. Embarking on Open Science can seem rather daunting at first: there are so many new terms and all sorts of different organisations committed to Open Science. The Open Science Community Leiden wants to make the new developments accessible to everyone.

People often think you have to do everything completely correctly, right from the start. But why not start small and ask your colleague further down the corridor how he or she goes about it. To find that colleague, just take a look at the member profiles of the Open Science Community Leiden. In your profile, you can indicate what you already know, what topics others can ask you about, and what you want to learn more about. On the basis of these topics, we will organise events such as workshops or talks, including drinks, so you can get to know each other and find out who to ask. To kick this off, everybody is invited to the OPENing drinks, 20 September, 16:00, central hall of the FSW building.

Open Science goes hand in hand with movements in the social sciences to ensure that research is reliable and reproducible. Openness helps: for example, you may find it difficult to find something you worked on a while ago. If you are used to sharing your work, you will also have a more transparent system that will help you, and others, to find and understand your work better. In this way, we build on each other's work and knowledge will accumulate more quickly and efficiently.

It would be wonderful if in the future we could leave out the word 'open' and just call it 'science' again. I believe that the new methods that Open Science entails help us to lay the foundations for the science of the future. This is a fascinating time to contribute to this. And as luck would have it, this is also a characteristic of Open Science: everyone can make his or her voice heard. In recent years, a number of promising initiatives have emerged in the field of psychology that encourage debate about subjects such as self-improvement, diversity, critical evaluation, and transparency (see, for example, 'the Society for Improvement of Psychological Science').

In addition to big ideals, it is also important for all disciplines to see how these ideals translate into daily decisions. Behavioural change – whether in relation to peer review, authorship, rewards, pre-registration, transparent reporting, data sharing, etc. – does not happen from one day to the next. We must all learn to recalibrate our scientific integrity compass.

Peter Bos

'Towards a culture of open science… but at whose cost?'

- Peter Bos, Education and Child Studies

Open Science is science as it is meant to be: transparent, accountable, and open to all. It can provide a solution to many of the problems facing science today. The move towards a culture of Open Science is therefore highly desirable.

However, we must keep a critical watch on how this movement develops. Open Science demands investments of researchers, such as pre-registering their research, making data available in an organised manner, and formalising all the steps of their analysis. These tasks are mainly delegated to the younger generation of researchers, who are already struggling to keep their heads above water in the competitive business of academia. I see around me many supporters of Open Science who, though they may have the moral right on their side, are not the ones who actually have to bear the cost of this change in culture – either because they do not produce empirical data, or because they are only concerned with replication or with analysing data collected by others. In addition, because of the demand for open access publications, more taxpayers' money is leaking to commercial publishers than before.

Open Science should become the new culture that benefits everyone, but not a moralizing straitjacket, or an extra ornament on a competitive CV. So let’s give it time, and let’s make sure that the cost of the change in culture is not borne by those who are already struggling in the current research climate: early-career researchers.

Nicolas Blarel

'Crucial for the scientific process of accumulating knowledge'

- Nicolas Blarel, Political Science

Traditionally, thriving as a scholar in political science has required the ability to publish and to engage in debates in the top peer-reviewed academic journals and university presses, which are mainly read by a select group of academics if these are lucky enough to have access through their university resources. While this metric for the evaluation of quality has its promoters and detractors, it is undeniable that one major limitation is that the existing publication process has hindered a more direct access to research outputs and insights which could be directly relevant to the public debate. Why does this matter?

My own research on the politics of foreign policy decision-making in India has made me both highly sensitive to the urgent need to make academic research accessible to a wider public but also to the inherent challenges of the promotion of open political science. While most of my research and data-collection has been aimed at publishing in scholarly venues because of the professional incentives mentioned above, repeated and direct discussions with the Indian policy, academic, media communities and civil society led to an understanding that sharing data, information, and findings about important public policy issues should be disseminated in various formats to a larger audience. 

This is not only an opportunity to inform public policy debates but it is also crucial for the scientific process of accumulating knowledge. Due to economic, political, technological, legal and other logistical reasons, the access to research published by scholars based in Europe and North America is difficult, if not impossible, for most of the large academic community present in India. This has traditionally limited the possibility for Indian scholars to replicate, build and expand on, and/or to criticize existing works and studies published in some of the so-called mainstream academic journals. As result, the wider debate is truncated and we end up having parallel academic communities not speaking to each other, as well as further reify existing divides and reinforce the impression about political science being Western-centric. 

There are various ways to bridge this gap and to attempt to develop a stronger culture of open political science. First, throughout my research, I have tried to involve actors in India and elsewhere that directly benefit from the findings of a research project, both by inviting their active input in the initial phases of the research process and then by sharing my findings at later stages, either through presentations or summaries of the main findings via more accessible media (preprints, newspapers, blog posts, podcasts). The developments in information and communication, and the multiplication of online outlets to disseminate knowledge have facilitated this constant interaction with a wider number of interested actors who had previously no access to academic outlets. 

A second solution has been to try to reform some of the existing academic institutions from within. Some professional organizations such as the Policy Studies Organization and the International Studies Association have been growingly conscious of the rationale for open science and willing to some degree to making research accessible under certain conditions. The policy studies organization was for instance very supportive in providing an open online access to the new journal, Indian Politics and Policy, for which I am an Associate Editor. In addition, there have also been efforts by some political science journals to give ungated access for a few high-impact articles per issue. The objective is to further incentivize these organizations to promote greater access and dialogue.

Thed van Leeuwen

‘We keep a critical eye on the acceptance and adoption of Open Science’

- Thed van Leeuwen, Centre for Science and Technology Studies (CWTS) 

Open Science is part of the CWTS’s research programme. We are interested in the effects – both positive and negative - that Open Science has on the creation of new knowledge. We are currently involved in a number of studies aimed at different levels of application of Open Science methodologies and techniques, and the various ways academic communities adapt and incorporate these new ways of working.

At the CWTS, we realise that we live in a bubble; we approach new developments such as Open Science differently from most academics. For example, studying open access publishing gives us an edge in terms of insight into issues such as licensing and paid publishing. Studying Open Science also reveals the complexity of the entire process of knowledge creation, in all its dimensions and for all parties involved. Think of the academic system of recognition and reward, for instance: in recent years, discussions have intensified about how to stimulate researchers and institutes to make the move to Open Science, and how to reward those who do. Last year a coalition of international research funders launched 'Plan S', which requires researchers to publish in Gold Open Access journals. This means that not all journals are now permitted, and the journals with the strongest reputation, coupled with high Journal Impact Factors, are likely to fall outside the parameters.

Studies into the degree of acceptance and adoption of Open Science show that the development of 'openness' does not proceed at the same pace in all dimensions of knowledge creation. Though many researchers are now familiar with open access publishing, and many already put it into practice, the same cannot be said of researchers’ attitudes to the openness of data. The whole question of how data should be handled, and how and under what conditions it is possible or desirable to open and share data, is still unknown territory for many academics.

At the same time, the CWTS is currently working on its own Open Science policy. Our own institutional practices show that this means that we must go back to the basic principles of our research. We must be willing to communicate about these principles with direct colleagues and with others further afield, and to position ourselves in a newly formed academic landscape in which openness is the standard.

Peter Pels

'Towards a more open Open Science'

- Peter Pels, Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology

The ideals of Open Science are admirable: transparency; clarity about goals, procedures and research materials (or “data”) for research participants as well as peers and managers; open access to both the sharing of research materials and publications – it spells out an almost utopian research realm of equal opportunity, consent and access. Who can disagree with such ideals? Unfortunately, the research experience of anthropologists with such ideals – with any ideal – is more prosaic. 

A founding father of British social anthropology, Bronislaw Malinowski, said already in 1926 that one only understands what ideals mean if one studies how they operate in practice. Just so, many anthropologists fear, and some have already experienced, that the ideal of scientific transparency and its supporting elements work, in a majority of cases, in favor of the socially privileged and to the detriment of the less powerful. (See Annelies Moors’ recent article in Ethnography, April 2019.) This can simply be explained by the fact that scientists are just like normal human beings: they live in social relationships that are never equal, always contested, and that reproduce irrational prejudices – despite the ideals of scientific objectivity and impartiality. 

Just like other human beings, scientists advertise themselves and their ‘wares’, and struggle for position in a pecking order. This also goes for whole disciplines, as I had ample opportunity to notice when discussing “data management” for anthropologists (see the Forum Discussion in Social Anthropology 26/3, 2018). I discovered that disciplines like anthropology and methodologies like ethnography are discriminated against by many protocols adopted by universities, funding agencies or academic journals. The big advantage that ethnographers have over researchers working with larger databases, is that they can follow in detail the process of transforming people’s knowledge into research materials, and from there into data and publications. (In contrast, most other social and behavioral scientists do not even ask what “data” are.) That also means that the intimate personal knowledge they gather can often not be shared with colleagues, even when it is crucial for interpretation. It also gives them a better view of how informed consent changes in the course of research (instead of pretending it can be covered by consent forms signed in advance). 

Data management protocols rarely accept this, and tell us that, if we cannot apply what was valid for other scientific disciplines and methodologies, we have to explain ourselves. In other words, we are turned into deviations from the norm. A really open Open Science should, instead, not only recognize that science is built upon social relations, but also respect the diversity of the researchers that make them up.

Social Science Matters – a soapbox for social scientists

Social Science Matters is an online variant on London’s famous Speakers’ Corner – a platform for the researchers in the various disciplines in the Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences to react to the news. This soapbox gives the social scientists of the faculty the opportunity to voice their opinions on current affairs from the point of view of their own areas of expertise.

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