On the evening of December 5th, I participated at the OpenCon Satellite Event in Berlin. It was organised by Jon Tennant and Peter Grabitz, my travelling was kindly subsidised by Stephanie Dawson on behalf of the publisher ScienceOpen.
First of all, I am glad that it is now understood that Open Access (OA) is not a final goal in itself, but the first key step to achieve reliable and transparent academic research. Open Science is about more than just open access to scientific literature. It is even more that openness of published data. It is about the openness of the entire research and the researchers. Academic research is riddled with back-room dealings and hidden conflicts of interests at peer reviews and scientist evaluations as well as with irreproducibility of published results, unacceptably widespread over- or even false interpretation of experimental data and even misconduct. Opening scientific literature without changing what is actually being published, without addressing the way how science is performed and presented, and how scientists are evaluated, could easily result in the OA revolution being hijacked by utterly wrong people. The currently hotly debated issue of predatory publishing and the scientists involved therein is just one example to be named here.
It is good therefore, that Open Science meeting and workshops involving young scientists and activists take place.
At the the Berlin meeting, we heard some brief talks and discussed at length about the future of Open Science. First, Andreas Degkwitz, university library director at the Humboldt University of Berlin, expressed the key scepticisms OA publishing faces from the established scientists: concerns about the peer review quality and the perception of lower respectability of OA journals as compared to the major well-known subscriptions outlets. The latter is not the case anymore, as journals such as PLOS Biology and eLife are perceived as rather selective and even elitist, similar to their traditional, non-OA competition. However, his other concern is valid: a worryingly high number of OA journals run only a low-quality or even a pretend peer review, thus falling into the category of predatory journals. Of course, the plague of bad peer review is not the exclusive domain of OA journals, far from it. Yet publications placed with such dishonest publishers are eagerly used by dishonest scientists to pad their CVs and to advance their careers, on the costs of their honest and hard-working researcher colleagues. Thus, we have to engage with both: predatory publishing (both in OA and in subscription journals) and predatory scientists.
This is what we discussed in regard to this topic at the OpenCon Satellite Event in Berlin. I first suggested to impose more transparency on scientific publishing, thus forcing predatory publishers either to retreat or to face being exposed for their lack of proper peer review. As I then learned, transparency is also what is urgently needed in building new criteria for scientists’ reputations. Only when enough scientists engage in science transparency and post-publication peer review, will the problem of predatory publishers become obsolete. Not only this, also scientific irreproducibility and irresponsibility might become rarer or even fade into insignificance. How to convince scientists to engage into open science activities then? By rewarding this engagement when scientists are evaluated, instead of obsessing about the journal impact factors and sheer publication number.
Then, how should scientists be evaluated, if journal impact factor, publication number and even citation index are not that reliable as read-outs? How can junior researchers prove their qualifications and build their reputation, while they are still waiting for their first publications to happen?
Of course, the traditional century-old method of personal networking is critical to advance one’s career in academia. But the internet and the many new concepts of scientific publishing, post-publication-peer-review and evaluation open new doors to the PhD students and postdocs, whose contact with the outside academic environment used to be so far tightly restricted and subject to a whim of their advisor.
This is what junior researchers should do: become active!
- Engage in post-publication peer review, and do it openly, under your own name, so you can also get credit for it. Many journals, especially PLOS, allow commenting. Aggregator websites such as PubMed Commons and ScienceOpen allow commenting on any published paper.
- Submit your own thorough peer review report on published literature to Publons or other appropriate output. Do it with any noteworthy paper you read or discussed in your group’s journal club. Share both appreciation and criticisms of the published research
- Try to engage the paper’s authors into online as well as offline discussions. Do not be afraid of their seniority or publication record. It’s your objective scientific arguments which count, not your personal status in academic hierarchy.
- Your comments and peer reviews will be available (often even with a digital object identifier (DOI)) to everyone on internet, including your potential employers and mentors. Therefore, you could directly refer to your peer reviewer activities with hyperlinks in your CV.
- There is nothing to be afraid of. Some senior scientists will surely be dismayed or even angry at your insolence, but as long as you stick to the facts and academic discussion, so should they, regardless who raises the issue. Besides, are you sure you want to have such people, who judge scientific merit solely on hierarchy and impact factor, as your mentors and employers? Yet those who value such engagements will be positively impressed by your initiative and competence.
This is what senior researchers should do: become open!
- Open post-publication peer reviewing should become one of several new criteria for the evaluation of senior scientists. Also, how do you expect your PhD students to engage in it if your tenured self is afraid of the wrath of your influential peers? Your contribution into post-publication peer review is needed beyond your professional competence. You are required to be a role model!
- Publish your official peer reviewer reports. It is not a breach of confidentiality anymore, after the paper you have been reviewing is published. Don’t bother about the opinions of the journals and their publishers, they have no ownership or copyright on your peer review report. The worst they can do to you is to ban you as reviewer. Their loss, not yours.
- Thus, make open peer review a pre-condition for your reviewer participation. You alone are the sole intellectual proprietor of your peer review and its report. If you post it on Publons or elsewhere, you do a great service to science, while presenting yourself as an honest and fair peer reviewer, a quality much valued in a scientist.
- Share you data! This applies to all researchers, young and old. Keep an open online lab book, wherever possible. Invite readers to comment and share advice and ideas.
- Publish pre-prints for all your manuscripts, for example on BioRxiv, to prevent getting scooped and to gather opinions and reviews from your peers and keen junior scientists.
- Post your research data as figures on Figshare, both the preliminary results as well as follow-ups to already published work of yours.
- Engage in reproducibility studies, and motivate your junior scientists to eagerly participate. Publishing replication studies, both failed and successful ones, is not a waste of time and money, in fact, it is even actual novel research if you employ new methods and certain controls omitted in the original study. Most researchers have to replicate published results of others first, before starting their own research projects based on these findings. Sometimes, when things seem to not work out, scientists contact the authors with their questions. Sometimes these authors reply, and the matter can be resolved when additional protocol details or crucial advice is shared. Too often though, scientists reluctantly accept that certain published data is not reproducible and move on. Normally, all these failed replication attempts end up buried in their desk drawers and computer hard drives. They should not.
- Finally, outreach at promoting science with students and the wide public should be also a duty of a good scientist. Blogging and contributing science-relevant articles to mass media can even be done from your own desk without leaving your office.
The challenge now, as we agreed in Berlin, is to make those who decide understand the value of Open Science. Faculties, funders and politicians should learn to reward those researchers who contribute to science transparency, and keep their own research open. On the other hand, the recruitment panels and funding bodies should give minus points to those scientists who do not. Regardless of the impact factor of their publications. After all, whose papers would you trust more?