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Three steps towards building a research commons


To make scholarship truly open, focus on culture, publishing and equity, says Kostas Glinos

I first came across open science in 2009—seven years after the Budapest Open Access Initiative brought the issue to wider attention—in my assessment work at the European Commission. 

In a 2012 recommendation, the Commission threw its weight behind open access to research publications and data. This was seen as a response to the digitisation of research and the momentum of the grassroots open-access movement. Initiatives and funding were rolled out to support the policy. It was extended to other research outputs, such as software, and applied with increasing ambition in successive European framework programmes.

Meanwhile, the open-access movement grew to include openness to citizens and society, openness of processes and methods, efforts to make data reusable, reproducibility, and new models of publishing and peer review. It became the open-science movement. And, importantly, the conditions that enable openness—research assessment systems, digital infrastructure and legislative frameworks, especially around copyright—are becoming policy.  

Other countries, international organisations and funders have followed a similar path to the Commission, culminating in the Unesco Open Science declaration of 2021. Many countries are working to translate this into policy, including several in Africa. 

The conviction that open science will be more efficient, innovative and trusted by society is now widespread. It was strengthened by the Covid-19 pandemic, when vaccine development was aided by the sharing of viral DNA sequences, and policy responses were delayed by the difficulties of combining heterogeneous data. 

Even so, only half of scholarly publications and a very small proportion of research data are open access. Where are we being held back? Three fronts come to mind.

Evolving assessment

First, notions of ‘excellent science’ need to change. Research assessment systems must take more account of the intrinsic quality and impact of research, as well as collaboration, openness, sharing and stewardship. They must also rely less on assigning prestige to individuals based on the journal in which they publish. 

The 2022 Agreement on Reforming Research Assessment, helmed by the Coalition for Advancing Research Assessment, was a breakthrough in this regard. But the institutions, funders and agencies that signed up still need to adapt their evaluation criteria to align with its commitments. 

Culture change also means understanding that research integrity and ethics include things such as sharing data and releasing negative results as well as positive ones. Codes of conduct and university curricula should evolve to reflect this broader conception. 

Second, the dominant publishing model, based on journals with editorial boards and peer review, is inadequate. It is too slow for the digital era with articles taking months or even years to be published; it does not ensure the quality of peer review or reproducibility, especially as the number of articles explodes; it does not incentivise the publication of data or software underpinning papers; and subscriptions and article-processing fees are too expensive for many institutions and researchers.

This model persists because it is engrained in research culture, embedded in assessment and defended by powerful incumbents. Preprints are a useful temporary fix, but they create a two-tier system.

A better system would bridge preprints and peer-reviewed articles. Papers should be published upfront, with peer review in parallel. Reviews should be citable and open so that reviewers win recognition. Articles could be combined into virtual journals, making innovative and cross-disciplinary research more visible. The deposition of data, models and software should be mandated.

And, ideally, the system should be owned and funded by research communities and institutions, not paid for by authors. Several pilots of such a model are underway, including Open Research Europe.

Third, to go global, open science must be equitable. Countries and researchers in many parts of the world are reluctant to open data and knowledge to others who may be better equipped to exploit them. 

Citing datasets and rewarding contributors are obvious first steps, but not enough. Work is underway to address this issue in some frameworks, such as the Convention on Biological Diversity. The discussion should be extended to other domains.

Ultimately, the research community needs to take ownership and responsibility for managing and sharing its products, infrastructures and systems. Only with such a ‘science commons’ will scholarship be truly and sustainably open. But without continuing reform to basic parts of the system, open science will be patchy and elusive. 

Kostas Glinos is a Brussels-based science policy expert and former head of the open-science unit at the European Commission  

This article also appeared in Research Europe