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Getting into open science

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It never really occurred to me not to be open. From the moment I started my PhD, I made a promise to myself that everything I did would be open and transparent. By this, I don’t just mean access to published papers – I wanted the data, and the information that I was generating to be freely available, and understandable to everyone. Apparently, this makes you a ‘radical’, but to me the alternatives just didn’t appeal. I didn’t see the sense in paywalls, in not sharing, in doing things for any reason but the benefit of the commons.

I remember during my Masters, back in 2011, vowing that my first paper would be published in PLOS ONE – I couldn’t fathom the idea that research I’d spent so long on wouldn’t be freely available. It took 3 years, but I eventually made it happen. My next paper was in PeerJ – I wanted to show that publishing open access early on in your career doesn’t cost anything, and is the easiest approach that benefits the most people. That’s when I really started to get into open science. Hitting paywalls when trying to do your research, or not knowing where the data was to support the conclusions of papers – these are huge impediments to researchers at all levels, and frankly I didn’t understand why it was the norm.

Everything took to a whole new level before my PhD, where I was fortunate enough to work as a policy intern with the Geological Society of London. There, I learned about the broader role of science in society, and about how science is about so much more than, well, science. Science really affects every aspect of our daily lives, from the water we drink and the air we breathe, to getting to work, and being able to write this essay.

It seems to me to be wholly unreasonable that one of the underpinning facets of society – knowledge – is treated as a business commodity, and not something that is equally, democratically, and freely available to every person on this planet. I think this matters inside and outside of the academy, be you a teacher, and engineer, a doctor, or a cook.

Since starting my PhD, I’ve been involved in many aspects of increasing our understanding of open science. The most popular one of these appears to be the publishing of the Open Research Glossary, designed to help inform academics about the broad range of things that falls under the umbrella of ‘open scholarship’. I helped lead the open community against poor publishing practices regarding open access by the AAAS, which culminated in an open letter to the Editor in Chief and substantial media coverage. Alongside these o­ne off projects, I continuously try to raise awareness of the issues regarding open science, and science communication more broadly. I try to practice what I preach by engaging in open practices, and communicating about science to broader audiences. Mostly, this has been via blogging and tweeting about science, and some of the issues that are most close at heart for me, such as open science. I use tools like Figshare to share my research as soon as it’s ready, and only publish in open access venues (when I have influence on the choice). Ultimately, this has led to numerous guest posts in popular online venues, and my personal invitation to several prestigious conferences, including SciFoo Camp, and Open Con two years running. I like to think that invitations to give talks, participate in workshops and panel discussions, and being interviewed about open science for international media venues, is a sign that what I’m doing at the very personal level is the right thing. Or at least interesting enough that others can learn from it!

Honestly, I don’t consider what I’ve done to be a success story. I don’t do this for myself, but what I do see are little victories, little nudges that show that as a practising scientist, advocating for openness throughout the system is the right thing to do. I don’t have data to support this, but I have experience. The exact moment I knew that the open science community was right, was during Open Con 2014 in Washington DC. I have never known such passion, such drive, such desire to come together as a global community and advocate for something so simple, yet so hard to obtain – knowledge equality. For me, whether this translates into career success is yet to be seen – I’m still only coming to the end of my PhD. But what I do have are skills and experience that will hopefully provide me increasing options to transfer to the next level.

I think at the end of the day, we really have to consider what science is. It’s about knowledge generation, about sharing the wonders of our mystical universe. Somewhere along the way, we’ve lost this – as a system, as a global community. Open scholarship, or open science, is the bridge we need to return science to its origins.

In 5, 10, 15 years, I don’t want to be talking to people about open science: I want this to just be science.

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Jon began university life as a geologist, followed by a treacherous leap into the life sciences. He spent several years at Imperial College London, investigating the extinction and biodiversity patterns of Mesozoic tetrapods – anything with four legs or flippers – to discover whether or not there is evidence for a ‘hidden’ mass extinction 145 million years ago. Alongside this, Jon researched the origins and evolution of ‘dwarf’ crocodiles called atoposaurids. Prior to this, there was a brief interlude were Jon was immersed in the world of science policy and communication, which greatly shaped his views on the broader role that science can play, and in particular, the current ‘open’ debate. Jon tragically passed away in 2020.

1 Comment

  1. Great article that may very well encourage other scientists to think and act alike.

    I find it somewhat paradoxical that there is even a term “open science”, since, I used to think, science is by definition “open science”, until of course when I found out that this is often far from the truth. So far, I’m just trying to set the right example (even releasing my data, code and papers under free licences as much as possible). However, it is good and important that there is a community making people aware of how science and exchange of knowledge should work.

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