March: Focus on Health Science

We have visited a lot of health researchers over the last month. Clinicians and researchers are spread across the University’s sites, so we’ve focused on providing our Open Research workshops for Health Sciences researchers where they work, starting in Canynge Hall and Dorothy Hodgkin Building. We have future plans to run the workshop at hospital sites such as Southmead, to support clinical researchers in situ.

The workshops cover Open Access publications and funder requirements, depositing papers and theses in Pure, Research Data Management, the data.bris repository, the Research Data Storage Facility and researcher metrics, so it’s a broad overview of how researchers can take steps be more open across the board. Plenty of questions came up, and it was really thought-provoking to hear researchers talk about their different career paths and their motivations to do research.

In addition to the workshops, we were invited to talk at the Centre for Academic Primary Care’s (CAPC) monthly meeting about our process for sharing sensitive data with external researchers. This question arises not only because researchers at other institutions hear about research at Bristol, but also because of an increased requirement from funders and publishers to provide a means of access to data from publicly funded research. We often receive queries from researchers working with sensitive data and whilst the themes are mostly the same, the circumstances of each case often requires careful consideration, so it was a great opportunity to learn about the issues CAPC researchers face and discuss how we can support them.

At CAPC we defined sensitive data in the context of research involving human participants. We discussed the circumstances where anonymisation is either not possible, or where anonymising would strip value from the dataset. Researchers were particularly interested in the process we have for sharing sensitive data through the research data repository, data.bris, and how we have access levels specifically designed for this purpose. We talked about how decisions to share are made via a Data Access Committee, how we check researchers are bona fide, and what is covered by data access agreements. We were also able to emphasise the importance of getting consent sheets worded in a way that makes it simple for researchers to share sensitive data. Off of the back of this talk, we’ve assisted three researchers with their consent form wording and ethics applications and prevented snags further down the line at the publication stage, so it was a worthwhile visit.

It also gave us the opportunity to give researchers a taster of the kinds of issues we’ll be covering at our upcoming workshops ‘Managing ethically sensitive research data: from planning to sharing,’ and interest was piqued so spaces filled very quickly! However, there are waitlists running and we will be repeating the workshop in the Autumn term and beyond.

Busting the Myths about Open Access

Today’s blog post comes courtesy of Mark Purvis of IOP Publishing.

Saint George slaying the dragon
Image via Pixabay CCO Public Domain

Open access is a relatively new approach to scholarly communication. The premise is simple: knowledge can advance more quickly if it can be shared without barriers. Why then have we not embraced the concept of open science more enthusiastically? Why is there such scepticism about open access, fuelled by misconceptions and myths? This guest blog post from Mark Purvis looks at a few popular misconceptions about open access and aims to set the record straight.

Myth: Open Access journals are of a lower quality than subscription ones

There are many ways to define the quality of a journal but in my mind, the quality of a journal is determined by the three things: (1) the quality of the work submitted to the journal, (2) the quality of peer review and (3) the quality of the copy editing and typesetting. None of these is affected by whether a journal is open access or not. There are, without doubt, many open access journals that are of low quality and seek to capitalise on an author’s desire to get published. You can find a blog and list dedicated to such “predatory journals” here.  But there are many excellent open access journals and many terrible subscription access journals. There is nothing intrinsic in the open access business model that compromises quality.

Some like to point a finger at the so-called megajournals . These journals operate a distinct approach to peer review, which has been interpreted by some as being of lower quality. These journals select articles based on an objective assessment of the scientific rigour of the research rather than a subjective assessment of significance or importance. I don’t agree this necessarily implies lower quality. It removes bias against negative results and helps prevent repetition of failed experiments. Most of these megajournals are open access but the question of their quality is nothing to do with the method of access. In fact there are many subscription journals that operate equally or less selective peer review processes (often without advertising the fact).

Myth: Open Access encourages plagiarism

Victim blaming is a recurring theme amongst populist commentators on modern life.  We are told that leaving doors unlocked invites burglars to enter our homes and steal our precious goods. Nonsense! Unethical behaviour is not the fault of the victims. It occurs because morally corrupt individuals try to exploit the endeavours of others to benefit themselves.  The real encouragement to plagiarise comes from a scholarly reward system that measures academic achievement based on numbers of publications, rather than the quality of research done. Plagiarisers don’t steal the work of others because it is easy to access the content. They do so because they want to cheat the system.

In practice, I would suggest that open access might actually discourage plagiarism, because it makes such misconduct much easier to detect.

Myth: The general public won’t understand my research

My first reaction when hearing this is to wish the researcher good luck getting the general public to fund that research! In practice, the real reason for publishing on an open access basis is not informing the general public.  It is removing potential barriers to knowledge sharing and collaboration. If the general public wants to read your research, great, but if a fellow scholar wants to read your work and collaborate on moving it forward, so much the better!

I still think authors should write with expectation that a member of the general public may want to read their work, however challenging that may be in technical fields. I’ve worked on journals publishing research in some of the most esoteric areas of theoretical physics, where the number of specialists around the world who  truly understand a paper can probably be counted in single figures. That doesn’t excuse the authors from the responsibility for setting their work in context and making it as accessible as possible. The best authors achieve that regardless of the complexity of the subject.

Myth: Open access adds to the author’s workload

This is a harder myth to bust. Open access can add to the author’s workload. It also adds to the workload for librarians, funders and publishers. However it is achieved, open access requires a change from the well-oiled workflows that have been established through the twentieth century. But it is important to remember that open access is a new phenomenon. The concept has only been around for twenty years, and meaningful take up has only come in the last five years or so.

New funding streams have had to be established, new staff have been hired in libraries and research offices; committees have spent months consulting and drafting policies at national and institutional levels; repositories have been built; and publishers have changed their submission systems and introduced new charging services to collect OA fees.

Change comes at a cost but the highest cost comes during the change. In the medium term, as open access becomes a normalised part of the scholarly communications process, the additional workload will disappear. Publishers are already working hard with librarians to modify workflows and eliminate unnecessary steps for authors. Where possible, publishers want to shift the responsibility for payment away from authors and back into the hands of the institutions and funders issuing open access mandates.

Finally, we must remember that any extra workload has an immediate payback in terms of easier access to research and easier collaboration. Open access is good for authors too!

Myth: Open access costs too much

The fees charged for open access publishing vary a great deal from nothing to several thousand pounds. Why is there such a difference? Ostensibly, open access charges are set at a level that will enable all the costs of running journal to be met. Those costs vary from journal to journal and depend on a wide range of parameters: the number of staff working on a journal, the IT infrastructure required to run the journal, the production and typesetting services offered and the rent of the premises etc. To calculate the article fee, add all those up and divide by the number of accepted papers. (Note, for highly selective journals the costs per article are likely to be higher than those for a less selective journal because the accepted articles have to cover the costs of processing all the rejected articles as well.)

I chose the word ostensibly with care because it is extremely rare for revenue to balance costs exactly in any enterprise. A good number of journals operate at a loss. This happens for three main reasons: (1) incompetence, (2) investment (with the aim of making a profit at some stage in the future), or (3) charitable subsidy (including volunteer labour). Because open access is a relatively new phenomenon, many purely open access journals fall into category 2. So, while fees may appear to be low today as a journal seeks to attract authors and build market share, at some stage the fees will have to rise to balance the books.  Those in category 3 may also face the prospect of higher fees in the future if a charitable subsidy is reduced or voluntary labour is withdrawn.

A sustainable business model requires the journal to make a surplus of income over costs. The size of that surplus will depend on the objectives of the publisher. Many society publishers, like IOP Publishing, use any surplus to support the activities of the parent society to promote the development of their subject area and support education, inclusion and outreach. Some publishers, like Elsevier for example, are commercial organisations that reinvest some of their surplus in improving the business and return any remaining profit to their investors in the form of a dividend. Other publishers, like PLoS, use the surplus achieved on one journal to subsidise other loss-making journals.

Now the good news. Not everyone has to pay the full quoted article charge for open access. First of all, there is a good chance your institution or funder will pay it for you. (RCUK has ear-marked £14 million to support its open access policy in the UK this year.) Secondly, you may be eligible to a reduced rate through membership of a learned society or through a deal your library has negotiated. Some publishers (including IOP Publishing) offer authors discounts in recognition of their work in peer reviewing manuscripts or serving on editorial boards. If you are concerned about where to find the funds ask your librarian or your publisher. We’re both here to help.

Mark Purvis is Open Access Publisher at IOP Publishing, the publishing arm of the Institute of Physics.

Open Science and Research Reproducibility


Our series of posts for Open Access week kicks off today with a post from Marcus Munafò, Professor of Biological Psychology at the University of Bristol.

marcus-m-photoOpen access publishing is an established and familiar part of academia, but other aspects of open science are less widely appreciated. Open science is an umbrella term describing efforts to make various aspects of the scientific research process accessible to anybody. This can include publications (i.e., the open access part of open science), but also study materials (open materials) and data (open data). The Facilitate Open Science Training for European Research (FOSTER) project has developed a full taxonomy of open science.

Over the last few years, my group, the Tobacco and Alcohol Research Group, part of the MRC Integrative Epidemiology Unit at the University of Bristol and the UK Centre for Tobacco and Alcohol Studies, has been gradually moving towards an open science model. Since we receive Research Council and Wellcome Trust funding we have been making our publications open access for some time. We also pre-register studies that involve collection of new data on the Open Science Framework, and share the resulting data via the University of Bristol Research Data Repository.

Why do we do this? One important reason is that we receive most of our research funding from either Research Councils (i.e., public money) or charities (such as the Wellcome Trust), and therefore have an obligation to be as transparent as possible, and also to maximize the efficiency and reach of our research output by enabling others to use our materials or data. But there’s another reason – we believe it improves the quality of our work, by introducing additional quality control procedures into our research pipeline.

There’s a great deal of interest in research reproducibility at the moment, particularly in the behavioural and biomedical sciences. We would hope that the majority of published research findings would be reproducible – in other words that a similar study would obtain similar results. However, there is growing evidence that this may not be the case. A recent attempt to replicate 100 psychology studies (the Reproducibility Project: Psychology) found that in only about 40% of cases did the replication study produce the same result as the original study.

How does open science improve research reproducibility? In our opinion, in a number of small ways, all of which may add up to a substantial improvement. For example, pre-registering study protocols (i.e., open materials) means we have to think hard about exactly what we’re expecting our study to show, and can’t move the goalposts after the data are in (a process known as HARKing – hypothesizing after the results are known). In principle, anybody could check what we report in our eventual published article against what we said we’d do in the first place.

There are other benefits. Making the data underlying our analyses available (open data) means that (again, in principle) anybody could check to see that they obtain the same results as us, or use a different analytical method that they think is more appropriate. This in itself is valuable, but it has resulted in unexpected benefits – researchers check their data files even more carefully when they know they’ll be available for public scrutiny, checking things just one more time to be certain. This introduces an extra level of quality control to the research process.

Of course, researchers are trained to be careful and meticulous. But researchers are also under enormous pressure, to publish articles and obtain grants, as well as often having to deliver teaching, complete administrative roles, and so on. Science is a human endeavour, and honest error is inevitable (witness typographical errors in published manuscripts, despite multiple rounds of peer review, proof reading, and so on). To protect against this, we need to embed processes in our work that help catch these errors. Open science has helped us to do this.

It’s easy to underestimate how much work is involved in adopting an open science model. For example, if we want to make the data we collection open, we need to ensure that participants in our studies have consented to this. As a result, we have had to modify our informed consent procedures, in consultation with our Faculty research ethics committee. The process has been a gradual one, and is still ongoing – we are now working to make our study materials open, beginning with our laboratory handbook. We feel the effort is worth it for the benefits.

Marcus Munafò
Professor of Biological Psychology

Tobacco and Alcohol Research Group
MRC Integrative Epidemiology Unit
School of Experimental Psychology
UK Centre for Tobacco and Alcohol Studies