November 23, 2017

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This feature article is part of our Open Access in Action series, sponsored by Dove Press, which tracks the evolution of important open access (OA) issues through a library lens by presenting regular original articles, video interviews, news, and perspectives. To learn more about how librarians like you are driving practice across the lifestyle of open access, be sure to visit Open Access in Action.

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Beyond Open Access

open_science_300x300The trend to make scientific journal articles freely (and easily) accessible also extends to the underlying research data and methodology. Academic libraries are the key to making Open Science practical.

Open Access publishing—both green and gold—are steadily disrupting the status quo, and lowering cost barriers for researchers. However, as we briefly discussed in March 2016, the trend goes far beyond access to peer-reviewed journal articles. Increasingly, publicly-funded research includes an Open Science mandate. It holds that not only published articles but also the underlying research, its methodology, source code (if any) and data should be freely available—and easily findable—in the interest of overall scientific progress.

It is a mammoth undertaking, requiring a common, standardized approach to metadata—and data management—plus the inherent skills of academic and research librarians.

Open Science Aspirations

We interviewed two librarians specializing in Open Science issues: Kelly Gonzalez, Assistant Vice President for Library Services at UT Southwestern Medical Center, and Robin Champieux, Scholarly Communication Librarian and Assistant Professor at Oregon Health & Science University. Both were optimistic about the long-term prospects for Open Science and Open Data, but were well aware of the obstacles to be overcome.

Both were very clear about the benefits of the open model. “Open Science drives discovery and public engagement, not only in the re-use of scientific research but also trust in the scientific process,” Champieux said. “It can spur economic growth and, in our case, it can benefit overall human health.” Quite simply, it does so by increasing the speed and efficiency of research. “Think of it as a means to an end,’” she said. “where emphasis is on sharing research as early and as often as possible.”

Gonzalez pointed out that Open Science reduces the tendency to re-invent the wheel, by allowing researchers to more easily build on others’ work. It provides “an open availability of data and methodology—in order to reproduce existing research, and to create new research projects without starting from scratch,” she said. “Researchers are able to use data that’s already been generated, or components of that data, to start a new research project.”

While idealism is a strong element, Gonzalez noted the pragmatic basis for Open Science. “We don’t want every institution to be doing the same research, when we could all be working together,” she said. There’s not an unending pot of money out there for universities to fund research.”

For Champieux, the end goal is clear. “Open Science is a means, not an end,” she said. “It’s intended to facilitate more transparent, more efficient, and more reproducible science. In many ways, it can fix longstanding issues with the scientific enterprise—especially those that the digital age has made more acute.”  She went on to note that Open Science leads to a process that is more collaborative and transparent, allowing scientists to acknowledge failure sooner and explore new paths—in a way that’s rewarded and not detrimental to their careers. It also provides a more inclusive acknowledgement and celebration of contributions—that in turn drives further discovery.

Dealing with Obstacles

A frequently expressed concern about Open Science and Open Data involves the ownership of research-based intellectual property. This is less of an issue for government-funded research, where Open Data is often mandated. Privately funded research is another matter. Medical research facilities like UTSW have separate departments that pursue the patent potential of research—open or otherwise—but questions remain on intellectual property rights to the research itself.

One factor impeding the adoption of Open Science is the current state of licensing. “I don’t know that there’s any good way today to establish intellectual property in Open Science,” Gonzalez said. “I hope there will someday be a Creative Commons type of control when it comes to Open Science.” She noted that such control is important to institutions’ reputation, such as that of UTSW with its six Nobel laureates.

Champieux addressed another issue: the potential for misuse of Open Data. “It’s a concern that shouldn’t be completely dismissed, but it should be discussed in relation to practices and workflows that make data understandable and interoperable,” she said. To help deter unintentional misuse, “This is where libraries and librarians are especially important, we can help researchers describe and structure data in a ways that its meaning and uses are clearly communicated.”

The biggest obstacles are related to transition costs. “There are new investments to be made in infrastructure, skills development, and workflows,” Champieux said. These include repository infrastructures, which need to provide readily searchable, reusable, and interoperable access to the data—not just to the published findings. Although change costs money, Champieux and Gonzalez both believe that the long-term benefits will outweigh the costs.

Digital technology itself is driving the change to Open Science. “In the old days, researchers had lab notebooks that could not be easily shared, and might get discarded or lost over time,” Gonzalez said. “Now we have electronic lab notebooks that can be linked to labs and researchers all over the world. A colleague in New York or Beijing can consult with you just as easily as someone who’s right in your lab.” She also stressed the importance of how such data are stored, not just to preserve it, but also to make it easily findable.

The Librarian’s Role

Academic research libraries are at the forefront of these changes. “Over the past three years, UT Southwestern Medical Library has gone completely digital,” Gonzalez said. “There’s a growing realization of what can happen with data and how it’s on a day to day basis.” Other libraries are following the same path. “Libraries should be changing now,” she said. “They should be embracing technology and applying metadata—really working with researchers, so that they are not all naming fields differently. Common named fields should be standardized [by the library community] so that the data are easy to find.”

Librarians’ traditional skill set will be invaluable. “Librarians can use their organizational, project planning, and cataloging abilities to order and store this data, so that it is safe, findable, and reusable.” Gonzalez doubts that a traditional IT person could do as well. “They know all about servers and Internet traffic, but they’re not going to know the importance of research metadata and its accessibility.”

Champieux also said that librarians and libraries have the potential to position themselves at the knowledge and service nexus of  open science practices.  . “There are two ‘veins’ of knowledge we need to address,” she said. “One is generalizable and includes the technologies, best practices,  and workflows needed to manage and share data and other research artifacts effectively. The other is domain-specific—and involves becoming intimately involved in the research process, and understanding the particulars of a specific scientific discipline.”

Undoubtedly, Open Science will push libraries and librarians into unfamiliar areas of expertise. However, their native organizational talents will ultimately ensure their success.

Open Access In Action

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