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UK research needs to open up to keep up


National reputation depends on joining the global push towards transparency, says Neil Jacobs

Policy on open research is moving quickly, in many directions, in many different places. The details are complex  but the trend towards greater transparency is clear. UK universities and researchers need to keep up, and in some cases catch up.

The EU is making much of the running—open research is a strategic and policy priority for the European Commission. Following the UK’s welcome association with the bloc’s Horizon Europe R&D programme, UK researchers will need to reacquaint themselves with its rules, including on open publications and data.

Looking towards the next Framework Programme, set to begin in 2028, the EU has also funded a raft of projects that, if well managed and coordinated, will strengthen open research and reproducibility policies.

Some aim to boost open research, others to measure it, build bridges between openness and research assessment, link openness to reproducibility and research integrity, and make research software more transparent.

The Commission also helped to set up both Coalition S and the Coalition on Advancing Research Assessment. The former has recently announced an ambitious proposal to reform the publishing landscape, while the latter aims to reform research assessment, in part to recognise open research.

Worldwide movement

Meanwhile, in the US, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy made 2023 its year of open science, marked by events including a joint summit between the US space agency Nasa and the European nuclear physics laboratory Cern on accelerating the adoption of open science.

Overarching all these initiatives is the Unesco Recommendation on Open Science. This commits the global research community to open knowledge, open infrastructure, open engagement with society, and open dialogue with other knowledge systems.

Last month, Unesco released its first Open science outlook; a review of open research across the globe. At its general assembly this month, it plans to release a guide for institutions implementing its recommendation. Led by the UK and Swiss Reproducibility Networks with funding from Research England, this guide will enable UK institutions to share, and learn from, leading practices worldwide.

Of course, many individual researchers are engaged in grassroots efforts to improve the accessibility, rigour and reproducibility of research. However, the international standing of UK research will also depend partly on how well it aligns with developing global norms, or better still leads their formation and adoption.

Make it possible

A sector-wide shift of this scale needs a theory of change. At the UK Reproducibility Network, we use the one developed by the US-based Center for Open Science—make it possible, easy, normative, rewarded and required, in that order.

Guidance and training can help to deliver the first three of those steps. In the last month, UKRN has released a collection of materials covering guidance and training on practices including sharing data, preregistration, ethical dilemmas in open research and version control.

Rewarding and requiring open research is a job for institutions, aligning what is good for research with what is good for careers. Universities can be reluctant to move alone, but this month, more than 40 UK institutions committed to work together to reform the way they recruit, promote and appraise their staff, prioritising openness and transparency in research.

Perhaps most powerfully, the Research Excellence Framework is placing an increased emphasis on supporting and rewarding openness. Steven Hill, director of research at Research England, has said that openness “runs as a thread” through the REF’s definition of research.

The proposed changes to how the REF recognises people, culture and environment may have prompted some to retreat to what they know—a focus on research outputs. However, the lesson from other sectors is that quality is built by focusing on rigorous processes. For academic research, one way to do this is by making that process as transparent as possible.

Judgement calls

Much still remains to do, particularly around defining the limits of openness. “As open as possible, as closed as necessary” is the creed, but what this means remains uncertain.

The academic research community, including professional and technical staff, need principled, practical, creative and joined-up ways to navigate between open research and other considerations such as security, commercialisation, third-party rights, sensitive data, and research with vulnerable communities and natural ecosystems. There is also much to be done to reduce the administrative complexities that can dog open research practices.

So, as the UK rejoins the European research programmes, it has a choice. It can strengthen its leadership in open and rigorous research. Or it can turn the other way.

Neil Jacobs is head of the UK Reproducibility Network’s open research programme.

A version of this article also appeared in Research Fortnight and in Research Europe