“Set the default to ‘Open'” – Impressions from the OpenCon2014

In November 2014, 150 early-career researchers and students met in Washington D.C. for OpenCon, organized by the Right to Research Coalition, to talk about the movement to open science up – be it through Open Access to published literature, Open Data, or Open Educational Resources. The three day event offered lectures and panels on the state of the open today, but also served as an incubator for the future of the whole debate that spans universities, research funders, and publishers. It was an opportunity for the already experienced advocates and academics to interact with the younger generation of students and researchers interested in these issues.

What follows is a short slice through the conference, heard and experienced by two of the four EFPSAns attending the conference – EFPSA’s Social Impact’s Ivan Flis and myself, with us piecing out short reports from memory, online presentations, and notes taken during the conference. You can find a more opinionated piece based on the conference here.

Patrick Brown and bringing down with pre-publication peer-review

Pat Brown of Stanford University talked about his experience as a co-founder of PLoS One, what is currently the biggest Open Access journal out there, serving as a prototypical example for all the mega-journals that were to follow:how it all got started, and the beginning ideas behind PLoS One that were even more radical than the resulting exceptionally successful and ever-growing mega-journal.

His main message was that the pre-publication peer-review is a rotten thing, in his words, worse than useless.

Pre-publication peer review, he argued, slows down the publication of otherwise important results. The whole model is built around researchers sending their manuscripts to the journal that would just barely accept it, and then when it gets rejected, just going down a notch and trying again. The inundation of articles and the proliferation of journals to create a prestige pyramid is the end result, which is a very inefficient system according to Brown.

This aspect of the movement for open is usually toned down – the moderate advocates are interested in protecting the public interest. Access for everybody first, radical criticism of the academic system second. Considering this, it was quite refreshing to see that some members of the open community were still thinking big, and thinking about the institutional fundamentals like peer-review. It set quite a tone for the rest of the conference.

Audrey Watters and what do we mean with open?

On the second day, Audrey Watters, a freelance writer and dabbler in many things including hacking education, talked about open data in an educational context. Her sobering talk issued a challenge to the open community to think through what does open as an adjective and as an ideological banner actually mean. As she said, the open, despite our best interests, doesn’t always pan out in the positive way.

Watters built the argument from her tweet that kept resurfacing from time to time, even though it was sent into the ephemeral twitterosphere a few years ago – the tweet gives a definition of whitewashing in the context of the open discussions:

Openwashing n., having an appearance of open-source and open-licensing for marketing purposes, while continuing proprietary practices.

We readily understand what openwashing means: How an industry operating within closed systems is quick to wrap itself in the language and imagery that makes it look more friendly and more progressive. More so, Watters challenged the audience at OpenCon and went a step further than singling out the corporate wolves-in-open-clothes, calling out the advocates and the iconoclasts of the open for giving the appearance of being apolitical, or neutral. Data, especially in the educational setting, is not neutral, thus, the position calling to open it up cannot be neutral, she argues. The data in this case comes with the inequalities built into it, and those inequalities will not be ameliorated by just opening it up. Her call is for capacity and agency building in the communities that get the access to this data. It is not enough for open advocates to provide the technical and the licensing framework of open data/education/science, but it is also crucial for them to empower people to use those newfound resources in a constructive way, through policies and political action. 

Student contributions

In two panels, students from all over the world had the chance to speak about their projects on Open Access. Georgina Taylor from Australia presented the Open Access Button: a tool that tracks which papers you can’t excess – but also helps you to actually get the paper you are looking for! You can download it easily as an add-on to your browser. When you are asked to pay for a paper, you press the button and the paper will be tried to track down for you – elsewhere in the web or by sending an email to the author.


Chris Noone and Ivan Flis presenting their study

Ivan, together with Chris Noone, former Board of Management member of EFPSA, got to present their study on the state of Open Access in Europe. While we would all agree that access to papers is a problem, surprisingly, not much data exists on how much access students actually have. Thus, Ivan and Chris, together with Jonas Haslbeck want to investigate differences in the level of access to scientific literature students have across different countries and universities in Europe. If there are any, how large are the discrepancies and what contributes to them? You can find the study here.

Erin McKiernan and why early career researchers should be Open

According to Erin McKiernan, a experimental and computational neuroscientist, it’s quite simple, really: being open means you research is more visible, you are cited more and thus have a bigger impact. Erin also debunked the myth that Open Access journals are not as high quality as the more conservative journals – there are OA journals with a moderate to high impact factor – but the impact factor does of course not say a lot about quality. What’s more, though, is that the retraction rates are higher in closed journals and peer review is often not made transparent.

If money is an issue, and for early researchers it sure is, she tells us that many journals offer waivers, especially for authors from developing countries, or do not even have APCs. Also, many institutions have funds specifically dedicate to OA publishing and recently, more and more charity organisations are asking their scholars to publish open access – for example the Wellcome Trust, Cancer Research UK, or the European Commission.

She also gives some advice on how to talk to your supervisor or mentor about going open access – but see for yourself (slides can be found here)

You can also find the conference schedule, many of the presentation slides, and other conference resources here. All the presentations were filmed, and you can watch them at the Right to Research Coalition Youtube channel.

Katharina Brecht

Katharina Brecht

After finishing her PhD at the University of Cambridge, Katharina is currently a Postdoc in the Institute of Neurobiology at the University of Tübingen. Her research interests revolve around the mechanisms of social and causal cognition in animals.

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