Piloting more openness at the University of Cambridge

Marta Teperek describes a new pilot project being undertaken at the University of Cambridge with the aim of finding out what can be done to bring about more open research practices. Originally published 10 February 2017

The problem: reproducibility crisis and lack of transparency in research

There have been a lot of discussions recently about the reproducibility crisis and about the growing distrust among the public in the quality of research. As illustrated in our ‘Case for Open Research’ series of blog posts, one of the main reasons for this is that researchers are currently rewarded for the number of papers they publish in high impact factor journals, and not necessarily for the quality of work that they are doing. University of Cambridge researchers have clearly indicated that the lack of incentives is one of the main reasons that discourages them from adopting a more open research practice.

Joining forces with the Wellcome Trust

As a way of addressing this issue, we approached the Open Research team at the Wellcome Trust. The Wellcome Trust are natural allies, as they always promoted the virtues of greater openness to their researchers. As one of the first funding bodies to introduce policies on open access and on data management and sharing, they have been leaders in this area, so it seemed natural to speak to them about this.

The Wellcome Trust has started to make moves in proactively supporting open research beyond enforcing their open access compliance requirements. To promote immediate and transparent research sharing, they recently launched Wellcome Open Research. This publication platform that allows researchers to submit articles about virtually any research output and get published in a matter of days with author-led open peer review occurring afterwards. The Wellcome Trust is now considering making open research one of their strategic priorities.

From our discussions, we quickly realised that we have a lot of shared interests, and joining forces to tackle the reluctance to adopting open research practices made a lot of sense. The final result was the idea to launch the Open Research Pilot Project at Cambridge.


The Open Research Pilot – understanding the barriers to “openness”

We conceive the project as being a two-year experiment, which would allow us to gain an understanding of what is needed for researchers to share their research results and get credit for all outputs of the research process. These include non-positive results, protocols, source code, presentations and other research outputs beyond the remit of traditional publications.

The project aims to understand the barriers preventing researchers from sharing their research outputs, including resource and time implications, as well as what the incentives are. The Project aims to utilise the Wellcome Open Research, together with other channels, to share these outputs.

An invitation to take part in the pilot was sent to all researchers at Cambridge funded by the Wellcome Trust. Participating researchers had to commit to sharing of research outputs beyond traditional publications and to engage with the project, by participating in project meetings and contributing case studies about their experience of taking part in the pilot.

Recruiting researchers

One of our biggest questions was whether how willing would people be to participate in the pilot. We have not offered any incentive other than encouraging researchers to contribute to the greater good. Support is offered by the Wellcome Trust and Cambridge Open Research team members for those who have agreed to be part of this experiment, but no financial aid to prospective participants has been offered. We thought that regardless of the outcome, that inviting researchers would be a good exercise to go through – we thought that if no one applied, we would have learnt that doing ‘the right thing’ was not a good enough motivator.

To our surprise, we received several fantastic applications from individual researchers and research groups who demonstrated a great interest and willingness to practice open research. We initially planned to work with two research groups, but given the quality of applications received and passion for Open Research expressed by the applicants, we decided to extend the scope of the project to four research groups. We have selected researchers doing different types of research, with the aim of learning about distinct problems in sharing that are experienced in diverse research disciplines:

  • Dr Laurent Gatto carries our research in computational biology, with a special focus on proteomics data. From his participation, we aim to find out, how to effectively share the research data and the code needed to reproduce them.
  • Dr David Savage researches the molecular pathogenesis of the consequences of obesity. Through his participation, we aim to identity what the problems are with sharing data coming from human participants.
  • Dr Benjamin Steventon is a developmental biologist generating and analysing large-scale imaging datasets. We intend to find out from his participation if there are image repositories that allow the sharing of large image datasets in a re-usable way.
  • Dr Marta Costa and Dr Greg Jefferies (and others) are researchers leading the work on two collaborative projects: Connectomics and Virtual Fly Brain, which will create interactive tools to interrogate Drosophila neural network connections. By being part of this pilot they will inform us of the issues with sharing complex interactive datasets, and help answer questions around the long-term preservation of complex digital objects.

Identifying researchers

So what motivated these researchers to apply for the project? We asked this question at the application stage and were positively surprised by the altruistic answers that we received. Our researchers were largely driven by a desire to improve the research process. We have seen responses like:

  • “Openness in research, from data and software to publication, is a central pillar of good research.”
  • “I am very concerned (disappointed as a scientist) by the current wave of ‘unreproducible’ and/or ‘irrelevant’ research, and am very passionate about contributing to improving scientific endeavour in this regard.”
  • I am very enthusiastic about exploiting new ways of sharing my research output beyond the established peer-review journal system.”
  • “I believe that sharing research outputs fully, including data and code are essential to accelerate research, and I have benefitted from it in my own research.”

Summarising, researchers expressed a great desire for contributing to a cultural change. Researchers wanted to change the way in which research was disseminated and to increase research transparency and reproducibility.

Let’s get to work

We all met – the researchers, Wellcome Trust and Cambridge open research teams – in January to officially start the two-year project. Each research group was appointed a facilitator – a dedicated member of the Cambridge open research team to support researchers throughout the project. Research groups will meet with their facilitators on a monthly basis in order to discuss shareable research outputs and to decide on best ways to disseminate them. Every six months all project members will meet to discuss barriers to sharing outputs that have been identified through the pilot and to assess the progress of the Project.

One of the main goals of the project is to learn what the barriers and incentives are for open research and to share these findings with others interested in the subject to inform policy development. Therefore, we will be regularly publishing blog posts with case studies describing what we have discovered while working together. There will also be an update from each research group every six months.

We will also be publicly sharing all main outputs of the Project. To date, we have shared the archived call for participants and the presentation from the kick off meeting on 27 January.

We are all extremely excited about  beginning this openness and we suggest that anyone interested in the open research practice watches this space – you can keep up to date on all aspects of this project here.

A version of this blog has also been posted on University of Cambridge Office of Scholarly Communication’s blog “Unlocking Research“.

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