Open science: Action with caution

6 april 2016

The open science ‘Amsterdam’ action agenda speaks for itself: scientists should be ready to embrace open access and open data as part of an open science agenda for Europe. This is a bold journey into uncharted territory of which we do not yet oversee the consequences and the barriers.

Therefore, in open access publishing we must engage scientists and scholars as much as possible. The debate sofar has been dominated by university administrators, librarians, government, funding organizations and publishers. That is why the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences has tried to shift the focus towards researchers by initiating this booklet. It contains a number of interviews with excellent researchers in a variety of disciplines. As it turns out, their opinions vary quite a bit, but, weighing all pros and cons, and regardless of the eventual outcome of this debate, researchers agree that the open access principle (in whatever ultimate form) must benefit research and society. Knowledge is not the exclusive privilege of researchers or academics, and everyone in society has a right to access results paid for by public funding.

We already see the signs of Airbnb’s and Uber’s in the world of scholarly publishing today. Research publishing will be disrupted just like many other sectors. What is needed is a level and global playing field in open scholarly publishing, in which incumbents and newcomers, public and private players can all thrive.  A publishing arena in which young researchers, citizens and countries with developing research & innovations systems can all harvest the fruits of knowledge.

In addition to open access of research publications,  open data and citizen science are also high on the agenda of policymakers. Researchers, for their part, are quickly embracing the notion of FAIR data sharing, that is, data to be Findable, Accessible, Interoperable and Reusable.  There are already many good practices to learn from. For instance, in the Ebola-crisis that is now well behind us, researchers, publishers, governments, local communities all worked together in the battle against the dreadful virus, by exchanging important medical and social data.  And to stay closer to home: here in the Netherlands, in the province of Groningen, citizens helped scientists to gather data on seismic activity via their smart phones. In doing so, they helped advance the scientific claim that natural gas depletion causes seismic activity.

Open science can complement traditional science at solving problems and grasping opportunities. However, it is also important to briefly mention a few potential challenges to open data as a societal default—challenges to overcome and work out.

First, open data and open science should not only lead to making data sets available and reusable, but also to handling data responsibly. It is vital to anchor public values such as privacy and security into the new mechanisms of data mining. For instance, open data collected from individuals should be anonymized and protected from deanonymization. Acknowledging and anchoring public values is extremely important when it comes to building trust not just in institutions of science but also in the methods researchers deploy.

The second concern is the looming closure of the open mindset by corporate data protection. High tech companies such as Google, Facebook, Twitter, Apple and Amazon increasingly collect automated data through their devices or services, such as health and fitness apps. These data are vital to scientists whose research depends on it. Increasingly, scientists have to buy behavioral data and realtime health data from companies—an expense that public science can ill afford. Let’s face it: open data are premised on a mutual definition of openness: a system with FAIR rules for all stakeholders. If businesses can profit from open data, so should public scientists be able to benefit from data and knowledge generated by private companies—of course with all due respect for intellectual property rights that guarantee their competitiveness. But economic growth derived from open science can only be inclusive if the ‘entrepreneurial state’ in the words of Mariana Mazzucato, is allowed to develop.

By José van Dijck

President KNAW

(this is an abbreviated version of the brief introduction that José van Dijck gave at the EU Presidency Open Science Conference, April 4th, 2016, Amsterdam)

Photo by Milette Raas 

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