Transparency is essential for trust and credibility in the research community, and true openness brings great opportunities for academia. The internet facilitates the free flow of information and knowledge, and permits new forms of communication both for researchers and for the general public. Already, today’s children can listen freely on the internet to university courses taught by world-leading scientists, and everybody has the best encyclopaedia ever written (Wikipedia) at their fingertips. These are real game changers. Opening up the research literature is the next logical step.
We believe that the current academic publishing model – whereby researchers give their content to commercial publishers and then buy it back from them at enormous cost by means of journal subscription fees – has become absurd, since it is no longer helping the researcher to distribute his or her findings, but rather prevents the work from being widely read, by hiding it behind subscription pay walls. Would it not be much better to let this information flow freely, accessible to everybody who wants to read it!
Of course, such a vision of openness for academic publishing raises issues of finance and quality control – who will pay for open access publishing, and how can we ensure that scientific rigor accompanies open publication. While the internet enables dissemination of information at a fraction of the cost of traditional print publication, publishing clearly involves more than electronic dissemination. It is for this reason that we, with others, are presently planning a high level conference on modern scientific communication, entitled Rigor and Openness in 21st Century Science, to be held in Oxford next spring.
However, new publication funding models are being developed, particularly in the United Kingdom, where Research Councils UK and the Wellcome Trust are insisting that papers reporting research results obtained as a result of their research funding should be published under an open Creative Commons CC-By attribution licence when an article processing charge (APC) is levied, so that the works are freely available for text mining and re-use . What is significant is that they are backing their words with funding to enable it. Cameron Neylon has recently written a commentary in Nature about the importance of this .
Furthermore, peer review is being carefully examined by several forward-looking publishers to determine how well open alternatives to the present system of confidential review actually work.
The role of social media in science
Much academic research is done in relative isolation, because topics have become so specialized that there may be only a few experts in the whole world who really understand each particular research problem. These experts may be located on different continents, and may not know about one another – a situation that is particularly true for Ph.D. students and other young researchers, who may not yet be familiar with the literature in their field, and who may have formed few personal relationships with colleagues in other institutions through attendance at research conferences. New forms of academic social media can play a role here, to catalyse interactions between geographically separated academics, and many experiments in this area are being conducted.
Academic social media can also play an important role in filtering the wealth of new articles published every day, and in alerting people to the small fraction of these that are most relevant to them. Typically, junior researchers rely on recommendations from friends and colleagues about which articles are worth reading, but if academic social media can be used to broaden this recommendation network, they will provide a significant service.
Fears and benefits of openness
Of course researchers, particularly early in their careers, are cautious about sharing their discoveries too early or too widely, for fear they may get ‘scooped’, since they naturally and quite properly wish to obtain credit for their own work by being the first to publish it. However, what is often missed by people of this mind-set is that working openly with other people can have benefits too. It can be a lot more fun, can lead to more sustainable motivation, can result in incredibly rapid collaborative progress, and hence can often lead to better results. An essential pre-requisite for this is the willingness to share one’s ideas and making contact with like-mined people. An example of a researcher who practices openness in his day-to-day research is Georgio Gilestro, Lecturer in Systems Neurobiology with the Department of Life Sciences at Imperial College London, who publishes his research group’sOpen Lab Book online.
Our personal experience, not at least in the joint Open Citations and Related Work developments described in the next blog post, is that you gain more than you loose by being open!
 Wellcome Trust announcement: Open access: CC-BY licence required for all articles which incur an open access publication fee – FAQ. Available fromhttp://www.wellcome.ac.uk/stellent/groups/corporatesite/@policy_communications/documents/web_document/WTVM055715.pdf.
 Cameron Neylon (2012). Science publishing: Open access must enable open use. Nature 492: 348–349. doi:10.1038/492348a.