VCE Embraces Open Science

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Open science or just good science?

A mostly quiet revolution is taking place in science. Only fragments of the debate have surfaced in the popular media, and even many scientists have been slow in adapting to the impending sea change.

The goal of this revolution? Open science (or, as it was known by the European Commission, Science 2.0), nicely defined by genome scientist Mick Watson as the “practice of carrying out scientific research in a completely transparent manner, and making the results of that research available to everyone” (in true open science fashion, the full article is freely available). Key elements of the open-science model are open access to scientific articles, to the data underlying the articles, and to the methods used to analyze them.

This hardly seems a revolutionary goal, but the reality is that science as traditionally practiced is a far more proprietary enterprise than often acknowledged. Let’s start with how we access scientific findings. Using Google Scholar or a similar search engine, we identify an interesting research paper and click on the link which takes us to the publisher’s web site. For those of us not affiliated with a large university – and an equally large library budget (although even giants like Harvard University struggle with annual journal subscription fees in excess of $3 million) – here is what you will likely find in your browser:

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A title, an abstract, and the chance to buy or rent the article at an absurdly high price (as the author of the above work, I can say with some confidence that you will feel no small amount of buyer’s remorse should you spend $39.95 to download this article). You will not, however, have the opportunity to actually read about this research, to think critically on my conclusions, or to realize how you might build on what I’ve done. This is unfortunate for many reasons: it reduces the impact and reach of the research because it limits the audience to scholars with access to well-funded libraries, and, in the case of conservation science, it disproportionately excludes the people most likely to apply the research to real-world problems (e.g., the conservation biologists at small NGOs like VCE!). Steep paywalls are also unfair to the taxpayers that funded the research but cannot view the product, one reason why the Obama Administration has pushed for open access to Federally funded research.

Bottom-up solutions are emerging, such as the freely accessible family of journals curated by the Public Library of Science (PLOS). Unlike traditional publishers, which charge on both ends of the transaction (researchers pay page charges and libraries pay for subscriptions), PLOS puts the burden of payment onto the researcher (and thus indirectly onto the funder). Once the article has been accepted for publication, it is freely available, forever, to anyone with an Internet connection. Independent scholars or those otherwise without access to funding can apply for, and often receive, waivers of publication fees.

But open access to publications is only part of the open-science revolution. Even more important in the long run is the movement towards providing free access to the underlying data and methods used to analyze them. This is probably the most revolutionary part of open science, and the most likely to conflict with prevailing cultural norms in science. Most scientists have viewed the data that they collect as something belonging to them, and have guarded it zealously, either out of fear that they would be scooped by another scientist or out of a sense that the data reflected too much hard work to simply give away. The consequence is a staggering loss of potential information, simply because we can rarely foresee to what use our data might be put in the future, were we to make it available. Henry David Thoreau had no notion of global climate change when he recorded flowering and leaf-out dates in Concord, but 150 years later these data have been used to document the ecological impacts of a warmer world.

Not providing access to data used in a research study also limits the reproducibility of the findings, which is supposedly a hallmark of the scientific method. If you provide me with your data, and the computer code used to analyze it, then I should be able to replicate exactly your findings. This doesn’t obviate the need for independent studies of the same problem – true reproducibility requires replicated studies – but it can point out flaws in analysis that compromise results. This, sadly, is not as uncommon as one might hope.

Ultimately, the vision for open science is that each of us leaves a clear and traceable path from data to results that can be followed by anyone. As an added benefit, the open-science model fully leverages the investment in data collection by making raw data available for others to explore. Even more tangible outcomes of open science, however, are also likely; for example, a recent paper in PLOS ONE demonstrates that transparent reporting standards for clinical trials has substantially changed perceptions of the efficacy of interventions to prevent or treat cardiovascular disease.

Realizing the advantages of open science will not be without problems. Open science is a disruptive innovation and its adoption will not always be smooth. Nonetheless, we at VCE are committed to the concept and are undertaking significant steps that will put us at the forefront of this movement.

We have always recognized that sharing our data is in everyone’s best interest, and have committed substantial staff time to making our observations publically available through platforms like eBird and eButterfly. We are close to launching the Vermont Atlas of Life, a monumental effort to “bring over 150 years of accumulated knowledge of the biodiversity of Vermont into currency for science and society” – an open-science initiative if ever there was! Furthermore, we have committed to archiving all of our scientific data on publicly available repositories such as the Knowledge Network for Biocomplexity  and ensuring open access to our publications. The scope of this undertaking is significant – it takes time and money, not to mention a substantial shift in how we as scientists think about our work. These challenges are one reason why so few organizations of our size have fully embraced open science to the extent that VCE has. We believe that the benefits of the open-science model, though, outweigh the costs, and we are proud to be in the vanguard.

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