RDN Open Research Panel: the researcher’s perspective

By Jennifer Harris and Tim Fulton

The 4th Research Data Network event organised by JISC took place over 2 very rainy days at the end of June at the University of York.  It was a packed schedule of talks, technology demonstrations and interactive sessions covering a full gambit of topics related to Research Data Management and Open Data.  Rounding off the event was a panel discussion organised by the Office of Scholarly Communication at the University of Cambridge on the subject of Open Research and in particular the Open Research pilot project that is currently being run here in conjunction with the Wellcome Trust.

The Open Research pilot project is formed of a number of research groups from across a range of disciplines all of whom are  intending to share not only complete articles but also single data sets or unexplained, yet reproducible, results. The pilot intends to look at the benefits and barriers of open research for the researchers and what support libraries can provide to facilitate open research.

Sitting on the panel were:

  • David Carr from the Wellcome Trust, offering his opinions on Open Data from the funder’s perspective
  • Lauren Cadwallader from the Office of Scholarly Communications, discussing how Academic support staff can deal with the demands of Open Data (and recalcitrant academics)
  • Tim Fulton a researcher in Cambridge University’s Department of Genetics and participant in the open research pilot
  • Jennifer Harris, a researcher from the UCL/Birkbeck Centre for Planetary Sciences at Birkbeck University of London.

Leading the discussion was Marta Teperek, formerly of the University of Cambridge but now working as a Data Steward at TU Delft .

After a brief introduction from each of the panelists it was over to the audience for questions.  Questions were solicited from the room in two ways, the traditional ‘stick your hand up and someone will bring you a microphone’ method and the newer medium of Sli.do, enabling the shyer members of the audience to still participate without having to identify themselves or speak up in front of approximately 100 people.  The range of expertise and experience on the panel was reflected in the questions, with topics of discussion ranging from how to to fund Open Science, (should it be included in block grants?) to what the panelists find most frustrating about the current methods of publishing non-traditional outputs including data and how best to persuade academics who are wary of data sharing that making their research open would be a good thing.

As two of the only people at the conference who are currently employed as full-time academic researchers this was an interesting and thought-provoking session that we were both glad to have had the chance to contribute to.

Views from an experienced Open Researcher – Jennifer Harris

As most of the audience were academic research data managers or related professions I definitely felt I was there to give a view from the other side, and to demonstrate to them that there are some researchers out there who do care about Open Research and are willing to work with the RDM community to make it a reality.  As the only member of the panel not involved in the Cambridge Open Research Project my contributions were also more general, offering a perspective from a field not involved in the pilot but one that does have a lot of experience with open research in the form of open (and free) data and citizen science.

Open Research is a multi-faceted issue and it was clear that everyone in the room had a good understanding of this and the complications that inevitably arise when attempting to promote it to a community of academics who already have a heavy load of pressures and demands on their time.  As a researcher currently employed on a postdoctoral contract I can get a little defensive when I hear members of the academic support community complain about researchers not engaging with their efforts to promote a new service or perform some new task that they’re requesting.  The task in question is sometimes only a small one such as uploading a paper to an institutional repository post-publication.  But these small tasks can sometimes be the final straw when it comes to managing your workload.

It was refreshing therefore to be in a room of people who mostly seemed to get that and genuinely wanted to understand how they could best get across to researchers that what they’re requesting when they push open research may involve an increase in workload but that it will (or at least should) be something that will pay off in the longer term.  A lot of the discussion kept coming back to the fact that what is ultimately required is an entire change of culture and that’s something that everyone will have to be involved in, from publishers to support staff to researchers at all levels (but most importantly at the top).

Views from a Newcomer – Tim Fulton

Over the two day meeting I was encouraged to speak to so many RDM community members who understood that open research policy and platforms are only as good as the  engagement of researchers and the research community. In talking to delegates it became clear to me that there were two clear main concerns with the project: getting researchers involved, and maintaining funding to ensure sustainability of the repositories. Hearing that the Wellcome Trust are in discussion about the sustainability of their project is heartening, if not currently lacking in detail, however at a pilot stage this is not to be unexpected.

It too was encouraging that the RDM community and pilot scheme organisers are keen on understanding what the current obstacles to sharing data are – most commonly mentioned were time and the fear of being ‘scooped’ by someone else using your data. Our laboratory intends to publish data following the publication of a pre-print article thereby securing our ownership of our conclusions without overly delaying the sharing of the data. We also intend to publish detailed methods to explain how our data was generated, addressing the repeatedly mentioned frustration with traditional journals of poor method description and non-reproducibility of results.

This project is a cornerstone in changing the attitude of researchers to data: changing the current culture to hoard data to one where data is a community possession. Whilst this may take time and there will be issues along the way I foresee this project creating a better research environment. We have begun the process of preparing data for publication at the time of collection rather than as a subsequent publication step. The hope is that these small changes to daily working practice should make the general research community more efficient and fruitful going forwards which is good for researchers, funders and the general public.

Published 23 October 2017
By Jennifer Harris and Tim Fulton
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