Open Science is these days largely about mandatory publishing in Open Access (OA), regardless of the costs to poorer scientists or the universities which already struggle to pay horrendous subscription fees. Meanwhile, publishers openly declare that the so-called Gold (author-pays) OA will be much more expensive than even current subscription rates, yet wealthy western institutions like the Dutch university network VSNU or the German Max Planck Society do not seem troubled by this at all. They seriously expect the publishing oligopoly of Elsevier, SpringerNature and Wiley to lower the costs for Gold OA later on, out of the goodness of their hearts (as this winter’s invitation-only Berlin12 OA conference suggests).

At the last major Open Science conference in Amsterdam on April 4-5 (EU2016NL) the EU Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation, Carlos Moedas and EC Director-General for Research and Innovation, Robert-Jan Smits, announced to achieve the flip to Gold OA by 2020. Open Data, on the other hand, is just a buzzword to them.

Below, I will argue that Open Data is much more important than OA, which in turn will be much cheaper and easier to achieve once unconditional sharing of research data is in place.

Only odd “outsiders”, namely the Norwegian State Secretary Bjørn Haugstad and the Secretary-General of the League of European Research Universities (LERU), Kurt Deketelaere, promoted the researcher-driven and cost-free “Green” OA as well as reduction of publishing costs:

 

The subscription publishers meanwhile seem to have started to change their attitude to OA, certainly to its lucrative Gold OA variety. Elsevier, well known for its greed, is still sceptical of these vast money-making possibilities, its EU2016NL speaker Michiel Kolman even blurted something rather ridiculous:

SpringerNature however is ready to mine into the deep taxpayer’s pockets. At EU2016NL, Derk Haank advised scientists not to even consider institutionally-managed Green OA, but simply prepare to pay the publishers for it, in Gold.

One side effect of the Golden OA flip will be that the scientists in developing countries will not be able to afford publishing in our prestigious OA journals (as the journalist Richard Poynder suggested). But of course they will finally be able to read our Western research for free, so I guess this is a fair deal (though I am not sure what benefit there is to finally be able to read for free the certain irreproducible or even manipulated papers in Cell, Nature or Science). In any case, these Eastern European, Latin American, Asian and African academics can still resort to “predatory” OA publishers like OMICS, which are very competitively priced, since they maintain no real editorial supervision or peer review. Maybe this consideration is the reason why predatory OA publishing is repeatedly seen as a non-issue in OA conferences or policies. It was apparently not even mentioned at the EU2016NL meeting.

Though I did not participate at EU2016NL, I could obtain some information on what went on there from the participant’s tweets. My request to see the meeting’s programme with names and talk titles of the participants could not be honoured, unfortunately. The Open Science meeting was apparently not that open. I could however get the general programme (strangely lacking speakers’ names or affiliations) and that of one breakout session from a participant.  Some, but by far not all presentations were put by EU2016NL organisers online, possibly heavily shortened. The presentation by the PLOS CEO Elizabeth Marincola contains only one page with some information.

Marincola

Thus, the bulk of the information discussed here I gathered from the participants’ tweets.

Peer review transparency, often seen as a key ingredient of Open Science, was obviously not a priority of the EU2016NL conference. This is a pity, because most of the irreproducibility in published research is made possible due to intransparent peer review and lack of open discussion after the paper is published. Scientists, but also editors, abuse their networks and hidden conflicts of interests to covertly help each other placing substandard or unreliable papers in respectable journals, with predictable consequences. At a time, where more and more journals switch to publishing peer review reports, sometimes even signed ones, this topic somehow was deemed not important enough at EU2016NL to make it into the 12 goals of Amsterdam Call for Action on Open Science.

This is how the online journal PeerJ (which offers optionally transparent peer review) summed up the priorities of the EU2016NL Open Science meeting. Note that also data openness does not feature in this diagram:

However, sharing of research data was discussed at length at EU2016NL, here one can see participants doing it:

In fact, even politicians and funders seem to be demanding it, but apparently with certain restrictions, which may clip the wings of open science revolution before it even took off:

Unfortunately, calls for data sharing got muddled by vested interests on its way into the 12 goals of EU2016NL. Jan van den Biesen from Philips, representing the industry network BusinessEurope voiced opposition, demanding that “access is given on voluntary and case-by-case basis”.

This was supported by a representative of EARTO, a Brussels-based lobby association of research and technology organisations:

With such pressure, the Amsterdam Call for Action Goal 5 ( Introduce FAIR and secure data principles) turned out to be more about management of data and restrictive opt-out loopholes like “legal (privacy) frameworks, and legitimate interests of the parties involved”. Such “legitimate interests” can easily preclude the sharing of any research data which its authors unilaterally choose to declare as clinically or commercially sensitive.

At the same time, publishers like Wiley offered their services in data sharing, sensing that some serious money can be earned there:

Thus, Open Data is about to end up where OA already is: a revolutionary ideal corrupted by grubby business interests combined with academic careerism and dishonesty. 

For Moedas, Open Science is maybe just a buzzword, but I believe it is the key to preserving science from the ever-growing threat of collapse of public trust and support. These are the main problems of academic research, and no open access, gold or otherwise, will provide much help in fixing them:

  • Irreproducibility. Its true extent is debatable and probably varies from field to field, but anyone who ever worked in science will know that too often bold claims in impactful publications are not to be entirely trusted. Junior researchers routinely waste months and years (never mind the monetary costs) attempting to reproduce some top-tier published results, only to give up and move on. Sometimes even published reagents are not reliable.
  • Data manipulations, from “minor” offences such as omission of proper controls or contradictory results over ”p-hacking” and cherry-picking of “representative” images to wilful image and data forgery. The true extent of this research misconduct epidemic is unknown, but all observers agree what is detected on PubPeer and elsewhere is just a tip of a huge iceberg.
  • Publishing intransparency. Editors (many of whom are active scientists themselves) are known to assign inappropriate peer reviewers, by disregarding blatant conflicts of interests or lack of qualifications. At the same time, reviewers who report suspicious inconsistencies in the manuscripts they evaluate are sometimes overruled by the editors. Finally, whistle-blowers reporting data irregularities or plagiarism in published literature are too often ignored or even met with hostility by the journal’s editors and publishers.

This is why I actually propose to make sharing of research data mandatory, instead of forcing scientists to publish OA, regardless of the costs.

Though I am fully behind Open Access, I do not think that the simple flipping of the current corrupt system of subscription-based publishing to OA is anything worth paying even more public money for. In fact, it will be highly dangerous, by generating a soothing illusion of openness and transparency in science which does not actually exist. Those established academics, publishers and policy makers who benefited from the dishonesty and unaccountability of the current system, are actually the ones who will profit once again from the fake openness façade of the Gold OA.

Mandating Open Data will actually deliver both- increased reproducibility and accountability in science as well as OA together with reduction of publishing costs. How so?

Labbook sequencing

There is no logical reason NOT to share published research data. The data-generating researchers will always receive their due credit, in fact they can greatly boost the citation index of their papers by sharing their original data with the community. These counter-arguments, often brought against data sharing (like at EU2016NL), are actually vacuous and misleading:

  • Protection of intellectual property against “research parasitism”. Scientists are expected to share their published reagents with the community. Some do it with Material Transfer Agreements, some deposit their reagents with biobanks which distribute the samples for a fee to anyone who asks, without questioning. The recipients always acknowledge the source and cite the appropriate paper. Most scientists still happily share their published (and sometimes even unpublished) reagents, and those who don’t: there are often good reasons for that. Sometimes authors know that their reagents are not what they were claimed to be, and sometimes these reagents do not exist. Some papers have been retracted due to authors’ refusal to share reagents. Therefore, why must reagents be shared, but data has to be kept locked up and shown only to select collaborators?
  • Commercial interests. Patenting of discoveries and technologies must happen before their publication, otherwise it is too late for it. However, pharma companies will be probably reluctant to release their original research data for their competitors to see and use. There is however no point of submitting commercially confidential material for academic peer review anyway. Neither reviewers invited by the journal nor future post-publication peer reviewer should be expected to evaluate any research which original data cannot be made available.
  • Patient privacy in clinical research. This argument is being invoked quite regularly, but can easily been avoided with proper design of patient consent forms, which will imply sharing of anonymised trial data with the research community. With such anonymisation in place, no identifiable patient information will be released and patients’ privacy will be assured even when the trial data is distributed to non-collaborating researchers (who might have to sign some kind of data sharing agreement though).
  • Publisher’s copyright. Subscription publishers require academic authors to surrender the copyright for their publication. This is what makes Green OA so difficult, because publisher’s embargoes do not allow institutional deposition of such publications, at least not until some time has passed. However, while the publishers may obtain the copyright on the final paper, they surely cannot get it for its content and certainly not the original research data. Otherwise, it would be Elsevier patenting all the inventions, and not the researchers who made them. The original research data belongs only to the scientists and their research institutions.

The latter point also implies why mandatory data sharing can succeed where Green OA failed. Scientists are afraid to anger the publishers by infringing on their copyright: after all, they need journals’ benevolence when submitting their works for publication.

With open data, a uniquely bizarre constellation would take place: scientists all over the world will be able to obtain the original data of a paywalled paper of which they can only read the abstract.

This might be enough for researchers of the same field to procure all the information they need: interpret and re-analyse data, reproduce the results and engage authors into discussion or even collaboration, and all this without the need to actually buy their paper. Scientists, who are proud of their research and who stand behind every bit of their data, will surely not oppose reaching a much wider audience without paying huge sums for OA. But where will it leave the subscription publishing oligarchs? Looking very stupid, that’s where. They will have it much tougher to convince university libraries to pay horrendous sums for subscriptions. In fact, they might all by themselves abandon their subscription models and beg for OA negotiations, before universities choose to dismiss their services altogether in favour of alternative publishing models.

The benefits of data sharing for research reproducibility are obvious. What this approach would need, is a mandate from the side of research institutions, funders and state governments to deposit original data of each and every publication they supported.

Sharing data is certainly a magnitude cheaper than publishing in Gold OA, and the scientists can retain their autonomy as to which journal they want to submit their works to. They can laudably opt for OA, or decide to publish in some traditional journals. It wouldn’t really matter, their original research data would be in any case available for free download to anyone interested. The data repositories should be best independently operated, publicly or even commercially. Non-complying scientists or those who wilfully submit only unreadable or incomplete data would face the dangers of negative evaluation by their research institutions or funding withdrawal, or even see their publications recommended for retraction.

The peculiarity of this method would be: it leaves the mighty journals and publishers once again out of the loop. The re-evaluation and post-publication peer review of the research they published will happen completely outside of their control. The wider academic community will take charge of the quality control and publish their reports on social networks, personal blogs or, indeed in other peer-reviewed journals. It would be therefore in every journal’s best interest to promote editorial and peer review transparency, as well as data sharing, if they wish to avoid being publicly associated with science which others have exposed as faulty or manipulated. The desired effect of peer review openness might come by itself.

When every single paper can be easily scrutinised and re-evaluated, dishonest or negligent scientists would be playing with fire if they were to publish unreliable results. No friendly journal editor could cover up for them, while funders and institutions would have a direct tool at hand to evaluate these scientists’ true productivity. It is time for governments and funders to stop listening to peddlers of vested interests and start acting on behalf of science itself.

Only mandatory Open Data, not Gold Open Access, will lead to more honest and more reproducible science.


Update 29.04.2016. I received this twitter reply from the EU Commissioner Moedas:

A shorter version of this article was published on The Winnover as part of  LJAFreproducibility collection:

Leonid Schneider, “Unconditional data sharing, plus peer review transparency, is key to research reproducibility”, The Winnower3:e146194.42516 (2016). DOI:10.15200/winn.146194.42516

14 thoughts on “False priorities at EU2016NL: Mandate Open Data instead of Gold Open Access!

  1. Large data repositories require the kinds of operational support that typically only for-profit operations (or defence departments) can provide. There are plenty of examples out there (outside academia) of people who confused open-source, volunteer-written software (the success of which is indisputable) with volunteer-run online service operations, which are typically not compatible with 24/7/365 availability of your data for 20 years; just putting it on Amazon’s cloud servers is not enough. Whose job is it to get out of bed at 3am on a Sunday to run some database cleanups?

    This would seem to be an ideal opportunity for publishers to branch out into. So now, instead of publishing for free your article that only 7 people will read anyway, you can pay $1500 in APCs for the fantasy that you’re helping someone poor read the definitive version (rather than the final draft that you made available free at ResearchGate), and $200/year to keep your data alive. Oh, you missed a payment because you changed institutions? Sorry, we had to take your data out and drop them in the river, we’re not running a charity here.

    I blogged some of my other misgivings about OA a little over a year ago here: http://steamtraen.blogspot.fr/2015_03_01_archive.html. Very little of what I’ve seen since has caused me to reduce my level of scepticism. The fees paid by libraries for journal subscriptions may or may not be excessive, but to the (debatable) extent that that’s our problem as authors in the first place, we should ensure that any replacement system is not worse. That would appear to be an empirical question that could be answered with the help of (e.g.) economists, but as seems to happen quite often, scientists seem to be assuming that science doesn’t apply to the running of their own affairs.

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  2. “Thus, Open Data is about to end up where OA already is: a revolutionary ideal corrupted by grubby business interests combined with academic careerism and dishonesty.”

    A beautifully and succinctly summarized perspective!

    I estimate, from experience, that it costs, labor inclusive, about 15-20 US$ to fully peer review and publish ONE PDF file (i.e., one scientific paper). The fact that these greed-filled “publishers” (aka businesses whose sole objective is to ensure profitability and enhance share-holder rewards) are demanding anything from 200-3000 US$, or more, is plain disgusting. A mass scalping of wealth, possibly one of the greatest in human history is taking place before our eyes with this OA boom. Perhaps Soros was onto something not that many years ago… when OA was born.

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  3. Late data repositories have existed longer than Amazon, for instance the Protein Data Bank (PDB) and what used to be called GeneBank, now inside NCBI. These are growing and adding new data types, for instance the PRIDE mass spectrometry database inside EBI. We know how to do it and have been doing it for a long time in some subfields. The most challenging issue is the adoption of data standards by the community, because there are many different data types. For example, optical microscopy data (for which an open data and data standard platform is emerging) requires a different data platform from that in PDB for X-ray crystallography. So a patchwork of Open Data systems is emerging, with an accession number for each data type. As more journals require Open Data and as colleagues ‘boast’ about their paper being both open access and open data, culture changes!
    Also note that research units that have vigorous open data policies also have the means to share such data, which provides them, with a definite edge for collaborating with industry, since sharing data one to all is easily converted to sharing one to one.

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  4. It doesn’t actually matter how many groups, initiatives or platforms are created. We already know the destiny of this “open X” plan (where X = data, peer review, access, or any marketing desirable noun): to pad the pockets of the CEOs, and to ensure long-term profitability. So, at least the publishers are guaranteed of profits until 2020, and now they are negotiating a settlement to ensure profits for decades thereafter, by corrupting science at its core: the EU regulatory bodies. I want to know how many are being paid under the table to ensure “success” for 2020 and beyond? How many gifts, dinners and perks are being wheeled and dealt? There are a wealth of interest groups who are benefiting from this and they do not include: a) the scientists; b) scientific and academic research institutes.

    And the amazing thing is the tremendous resources and efforts to create a smoke-screen, forcing us (scientists) and the public to focus on the future, while desperately trying to ignore the past. While time is being burnt negotiating, notice how nobody is discussing making all data from papers published, for example, in the past 10 years, fully open for the community and public to view. This is the real conversation that nobody wants to discuss. That is why PPPR is essential and needs to be aggressive, to force accountability TODAY, before it’s too late to hold those who have already benefited unfairly from gaming the system, accountable. The PPPR movement represents, to a certain extent, one way to shame the follies of these powerful interest groups and publishers, by showing that their business models have failed, incredibly, and that their profits made thus far have been based on corrupted peer review that has failed science itself.

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  5. I think it is time for journals to demand that data sets are published together with papers. It will eliminate at least some of the very obvious and very common types of misconduct. For example, it is very popular to make one experiment and to claim that it represents “typical” example, very often even without citing how many samples were studied, not to mention how many and how closely reproduced this “typical” one.

    Once again, the case of Suchitra Holgersson showed that this type of misconduct is impossible to fight on institutional level. When student declared that he made only one experiment instead on 5 shown in some table, Holgersson simply stated that the student made all five. This story would be imposisble if journals were to demand all data files mentioned in published paper. I realize that in some studies this would be huge amount of data, but for 90% of publications these data would fit into standard supporting info files. Also I don’t think that submission of these data willadd a lot of work to honest researchers. they anyway process these data before analysis, it will be only minor effort for them to arrange all plots and graphs into one long file.

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  6. I am of the belief that one of the real reasons why publishers like Elsevier are scrambling to change their business models to OA, whether this implies open access data or not, is Sci-Hub. An excellent rationale is provided by Bohannon (observe very carefully the access from the US, and EU). These publishers are suddenly feeling threatened, and the only way to continue business and profit is by making everything OA, with a big fat price label on it, in the form of APCs. That is why they are so anti the new massive wave of OA journals and publishers that Beall refers to as predatory, because they are predating upon what was once on the profit held exclusively in the hands of a handful of mainly EU and US publishers.

    I predict real fireworks between now and 2020.

    The Bohannon piece:
    DOI: 10.1126/science.aaf5664
    http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2016/04/whos-downloading-pirated-papers-everyone?utm_source=sciencemagazine&utm_medium=twitter&utm_campaign=scihub-3917

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    1. On the issue of Sci-Hub and Bohannon’s latest paper, all comments that were posted to PubPeer related to Bohannon’s paper “Who’s downloading pirated papers? Everyone” have been wiped clean in another sad demonstration of bias by PubPeer moderators:
      https://www.pubpeer.com/publications/E9EDBAA7FFAF62CE3770693FB8F32D

      The two issues that were erased were the validity of Meysam Rahimi being a poor student without access to papers (Rahimi confirmed the claims that were made on PubPeer), given the fact that he is listed as a professor of Economics at Aarhus University.

      Bohannon did not explain how he found, and why he selected, this particular individual to show-case his Sci-Hub story.

      The second issue is why Alexandra Elbakyan is not a co-author of this paper, given her centrality to the entire paper’s methodology. From my understanding, without her analyses and hard work, this paper by Bohannon would not exist.

      One has to thus question if Bohannon requested all comments to be erased, if PubPeer is protecting Bohannon, or if the questions were simply too prickly to be exposed?

      Evidence for the second comment erasure:

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      1. Hi.
        As the poor meysam I’m telling you,I’m not any king of a professor at Aarhus University,I’m a student and a part time lecturer in some smaller low ranked universities INSIDE Iran!
        and I know why have you mistaken me with someone!because once I built a google site,and I searched for an academic template,used it,did not change the text,didn’t like it(because it was hard to modify it for Persian language),So I left it there!
        I even forgot that I once built this website till I see this message !my website is on a national domain now!
        http://meysam.rahimi.loxblog.ir/
        I’ll erase that google site soon,but not too soon ,so that everybody can check it!erasing it now may complicate things more and I don’t like it!

        one more thing:I’m not Poor,my whole country is!I’m a upper-middle class student in Iran,but the conversion rate of our money is so low that nobody can really buy thing like academic papers!
        a university professor in Iran will get something between 1000 to 2500 $ a month,which is the less than scholarship for a PHD student at the united states.

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      2. Dr. Rahimi, it is good to get the input of the main proponent of the story. Thank you for promising to correct your misleading and erroneous web-page.

        Can you please assist the public with some missing information (which Bohannon refuses to provide):
        a) How did Bohannon find you among so many Iranian scientists? Or were you “discovered” by Elbakyan?
        b) Why were you selected for the story, do you think?
        c) Did you agree to be named in this paper by Bohannon?

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  7. Placing the cost directly on the scientists has obvious downsides, including making top journals inaccessible for many authors. It also has the benefit of making the cost more tangible to the scientists, to the people who decide where to publish. At least for some scientists, publication costs will factor into their decisions where to submit.

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  8. a.The way he found me… I’m not really sure.a friend of mine asked me if I can have a interview about sci-hub and I said yes!As I remember he told me that Bohannon had visited Iran and he had a meeting with him(or his supervisor at the university).I don’t know whether it was just me or there were other students and I was selected according to some criteria!
    b.I really don’t know why I was selected,but does it matter?because it’s not an statistical study,and he didn’t infer anything from just one sample!he used me as a background story and I think it was a good realistic story which represents a typical PHD student’s life in Iran.
    c.He told me from the beginning that it will be used to write an story in science mag and I agreed!

    I removed that fake webpage to prevent further problems.I actually didn’t know that I have such a page!
    (And wordpress Is blocked inside Iran,so I’m using an unblocker to come here.don’t accuse me of being someone else because of my IP adress!It’s hotspot shield’s IP!)

    Like

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