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A bit about our open-science Marie Curie project

This is my first week as a Marie Sklodowska-Curie fellow. Exciting! Marie Curie fellowships are post-doctoral grants from the European Commision. They give young(ish) researchers like me the opportunity to focus full time on research for two years. Being a Marie Curie fellow is a good thing in every way, so I’m thrilled to finally start!

I will blog occasionally about the project. Most will be about the research itself, but in this first post I want to write a bit about how we are going to approach this project. (“We” refers also to Françoise Vitu, senior researcher of the project, and other collaborators.) To use a heavily overused buzzterm, this is going to be an open-science project.

An actress performing Marie Curie. The left-most badges have been designed by the Center for Open Science. The right-most badge is the officious open-access logo, designed by PLoS.

So what does this mean? The guiding principle is that all scientific output will be made publicly available. This may sound obvious (why do research if you’re not going to make the results available?), but it’s not typical of today’s research. Traditionally, scientific output consists solely of papers that are published in academic subscription journals. The data behind these papers is never shared. And the papers themselves are only accessible to a small group of people with journal subscriptions: i.e. other researchers, but not the taxpayers who paid for the research, nor clinicians who might benefit from the research.

We, as well as many others, are trying to break with this unhealthy tradition in two main ways. First, we will make all data publicly available, instead of only providing a summary of our results in a paper. This will allow others to re-analyze our data for their own purposes, or to verify our conclusions. Second, we will publish everything under open-access licenses. This means that anyone will be able to download our papers for free. We have made these intentions explicit in the Marie Curie grant proposal, which in a sense protects us from defecting on our own principles. (See also this post about my open-science experiences thus far.)

Although I realize, occasional delusions of grandeur notwithstanding, that my influence is limited, I do hope that our project will set an example to other young researchers. Because, unfortunately, open science is still not encouraged. Not because researchers don’t condone the principles behind it–they overwhelmingly do–but because it is perceived as hazardous to your career, especially if, like me, you’re still in the rat race for a permanent position. For example, open-access journals are perceived as less prestigious than subscription journals. Therefore, the fear is that by publishing open access, you won’t be rewarded for sharing your research, but rather be punished because your colleagues will assume that you weren’t able to publish in a ‘real journal’. The notion that you may choose to publish open access is not something that readily comes to mind for people trained in a perverse system based on journal ranking and prestige, instead of transparency and scientific advancement. Similarly, data sharing is perceived as risky, because other people may re-analyze your data and spot a mistake in your analysis. This could be bad for your reputation, because surely good scientists never make mistakes. (Or do they?) So better keep that data safely locked away!

But are these fears warranted? Is open science really bad for a young researcher’s career? This is difficult to know for sure, but I personally doubt it.

If you publish open access, you won’t benefit from having your name in a prestigious journal, but you will get your research out there more quickly, reach more people, and be cited more. If you publish in open-access journals like PLoS ONE and PeerJ, your colleagues can access your article from anywhere and at the click of a button. In contrast, if you publish in a subscription journal like Elsevier’s Vision Research, your colleagues can only access your article at work (or via a VPN or proxy), and even then (depending on the type of subscription) only after clicking through several confusing redirect pages. What a hassle! And every click that stands between you and your audience reduces your readership.

Similarly, by making your data publicly available you make a statement: I don’t have anything to hide! In the past years it has becomes clear that researchers engage in all kinds of unsavory practices to make their results look better than they are. By being fully transparent you show that you do not play this game. (Or at least less so and unintentionally.) And I really think that your colleagues will notice and appreciate this.

So that’s my brief description of our open-science project! I’m very excited about the research that we’re going to do in the next two years. Stay tuned for results …