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Open Research Handbook: About Open Research

A practical guide to Open Research

Getting started with Open Research

This section of the guide provides an introduction to Open Research. We explain what it is, what you have to do and what you can do. We also explain why Open Research is important, and explode some common myths.

About Open Research

Open Research is a set of principles and practices whose aim is to make the outputs of research freely accessible and usable, thereby to maximise the possibility of public benefit. It has been described as ‘scholarly research that is collaborative, transparent and reproducible and whose outputs are publicly available’ (Integrated advice of the Open Science Policy Platform). It is based on the principle that knowledge produces the greatest benefits if it is shared as widely as possible.

Open Research is relevant to all researchers and all disciplines, although the applications will differ according to discipline and research context. There are many different definitions of Open Research, but a number of themes can be identified (not all of which are relevant in all cases):  

  • making the outputs of research, including publications, data, software and other research materials freely accessible;
  • using online tools and services to increase the transparency of research processes and methodologies;
  • making scientific research more reproducible by increasing the amount and quality of information placed on the public record;
  • using alternative models of publication and peer review to make the dissemination and certification of research faster and more transparent;
  • using open collaborative methods to increase efficiency and widen participation in research.

The principles of Open Research are reflected in the policies of many public funders and research organisations that promote greater public access to research, and in evolving models of scholarly communication. Change is also being driven by the needs of academic communities and stakeholders among the general public, in industry, and in the developing world.

The terms Open Science and Open Research are both widely-used. In practice they can be regarded as synonymous. Our preferred term is Open Research, as this clearly applies to all disciplines, including those in the arts and humanities and the social sciences.

In Europe, Open Science usually applies to research in all disciplines. But the term is also commonly used in specific reference to the empirical sciences, where issues of accessibility, transparency and reproducibility are most acute. While access to the outputs of research is important irrespective of the discipline or nature of the research, many open practices are mostly or solely relevant to the sciences. For example: researchers in all disciplines should share their primary data and materials in order to maximise their value and enable re-use, but it is only in scientific research that data are essential to the validation and reproduction of experimental results. Some open practices, such as pre-registration of study designs, are only relevant to scientific disciplines.

Some definitions of Open Research/Open Science are provided below. You can see that while these each take slightly different perspectives, together they converge around a set of core definitions, which include elements of accessibility, transparency, reproducibility, collaboration, timeliness, and sustainability.

The following open practices are considered in this guide:

  • using publication under an open licence to communicate research outputs, which may include publications, data, software code, and other materials;
  • disseminating research findings using preprint servers or preprint journals;
  • submitting a paper to a journal under a formal open peer review process managed by a publisher, or acting as a peer reviewer under a publisher-managed open peer review system;
  • creating a public pre-registration of a study design or publishing a study as a registered report;
  • publishing a formal peer-reviewed description of research resources, such as a data paper or software paper;
  • incorporating open and participatory methods into the design and conduct of research, e.g. by using open notebook-based methods or creating a project using a citizen science online platform;
  • introducing Open Research concepts, practices and resources into teaching and learning;
  • creating tools or technologies to facilitate Open Research practices, e.g. for combining or repurposing datasets and other research outputs from different locations or disciplines, or for mining content;
  • undertaking activities to develop the environment for Open Research, e.g. by engaging in high-profile communications, by causing a journal to adopt pro-Open Research policies, or by participating in community initiatives to develop data or metadata standards.

Open Access publication of research outputs and open sharing of primary research data and supporting materials (e.g. code written to process or analyse data) are core practices. They are general to research in all disciplines, and are subject to requirements in the policies of public funders and research organisations. (Of course, the requirements only apply where the outputs in question are generated: not all research activities will involved collection of primary data.)

Other practices will be relevant only to certain types of research and in certain contexts, and are not generally required by policy. They exist, therefore, as possibilities for researchers, and not obligations. But they all offer solutions to specific problems, or a means of advancing the aims of Open Research. For example: preprints and open peer review procedures are solutions to inefficiences in the traditional system of research dissemination and certification; pre-registrations and registered reports are solutions to problems associated with the conduct and reporting of empirical research; software and data papers are vehicles for promoting the recognition and re-use of other types of research output; citizen science platforms create new research possibilities by bringing the wisdom of crowds to bear on analytical problems that cannot be solved by machine processing.

There are two Open Research requirements that apply to both members of staff and research students. Researchers are required:

  • to comply with funders' conditions for the Open Access publication of research findings, and to deposit the author-final version of all journal articles and conference proceedings in CentAUR as soon as they have been accepted for publication (Open Access Policy).
  • to offer for preservation and sharing via a suitable data repository data (including computer code where relevant) that substantiate published research findings (Research Data Management Policy).

In most cases compliance with these policies will also entail the release of Open Access research outputs and open research data. (Although this does not necessarily follow: manuscripts deposited in CentAUR are made available by default under the CentAUR End User Agreement, which is not an open licence, unless an item has been published by the publisher under an Open Access licence; not all data can be shared openly, and University policy allows for justified restrictions on data sharing.)

Apart from these two requirements, none of the practices discussed in this guide are mandatory. But the University's Statement on Open Research encourages researchers to use open practices where possible. This guide is aimed at helping you to explore the possibilities and benefits of using open practices in your research.

So Open Research is accessible, transparent and reproducible. But, to paraphrase one author, isn't that just research? In other words, what is the problem with research that makes people insist on the need for it to be open?

In fact, research has several problems:

  • Two thirds of the scholarly record is hidden behind paywalls. Of the 2 million peer-reviewed articles published in 2018, over 1.4 million are inaccessible to many researchers as well as the wider public, with those outside the developed world academic network disproportionately denied access to vital scientific literature. Not only does this situation exacerbate global inequality, it wastes untold opportunities to generate public and economic benefit from research.
  • Many valuable outputs of the research process, in particular research data and software, are undervalued in academic cultures and reward systems, and are not made accessible for re-use by others: they may not be shared at all, or may be shared with poor annotation and documentation, and in formats (such as PDF) that do not enable easy re-use.
  • Empirical research is characterised by poor rates of reproducibility, the result, variously, of avoidable weaknesses in research design and methods, the lack of detailed information about hypotheses and methods in published findings, and the failure to share supporting data and code used in analysis of results. A survey conducted by the journal Nature in 2016 found that over 70% of scientists had been unable to reproduce the work of others, and over 50% could not reproduce their own experiments! This represents a massive waste of resources, and in areas such as medical and pharmaceutical research seriously depresses the development of effective treatments. In 2015 it was estimated that irreproducible biology research costs USD 28 billion per year.
  • The certification and release of research for the public record remains largely tied to a closed process of peer review, which is vulnerable to the judgement of a few (often anonymous) peer reviewers, not publicly accountable, and heavily skewed by the phenomenon of publication bias – the overwhelming tendency to publish reports of novel research and significant effects at the expense of null and negative results. This leads to suppression of large amounts of research based on limited non-transparent assessments and other factors unrelated to the quality of the research.
  • The communication of valuable research results can be subject to lengthy delays as papers proceed through publishers’ closed submission and peer review systems, slowing the rate of individual productivity and scientific progress. Authors may become trapped in a serial submission process lasting months and even years as they seek to secure acceptance for a paper. The effective result is suppression of research by delay.

Myth #1 Open Research is only for scientists

No! Open Research is for all researchers in all disciplines. Whatever your discipline, you are expected by policy to use Open Access publication to communicate your findings, and to share any primary data or computer code that support these findings. It is true that some open practices (such as study pre-registration) will only be relevant to empirical sciences, and that others, such as data sharing, will be less relevant in disciplines and methods of research where primary data collection is rarely used. But this should not obscure the central relevance of Open Research principles to the manner in which research, of whatever discipline, is made accessible to, and re-usable by, other people.

Myth #2 Time spent on Open Research is time taken away from research

This is a misleading opposition. Time spent on Open Research is time spent making research better. Open Research is about accessibility, transparency and reproducibility. If your research is more open to scrutiny, you can increase critical input, improve research design, reduce the incidence of error, and produce better work. If it is communicated sooner, it has greater opportunity to generate benefits for yourself and others. If your research outputs are more accessible, they are more likely to be used and cited, your research has greater reach, and the likelihood of making productive connections with peers and users of the research is increased.

Myth #3 Data sharing is a waste of time - no-one's ever asked to see my data

That doesn't mean no-one would be interested if your data were available from a data repository. Norms take time to become established. If people do not know that the data are available, or if the data are not available online, then the majority will not make the effort to find or seek access to them. Perhaps there are people who would like to view your data, but don't want to have to ask. If people know your data are easily accessible, then they will be more inclined to discover and use them. There may well be readers of your research who would view your data if they could, or would realise how the data could be useful to them if they were easily accessible.

Myth #4 The problems are exaggerated: I can access all the information I need

Have you tried accessing the articles you need from off campus, without logging in using your University account? Two thirds of the scholarly record is hidden behind paywalls. What does that look like if you don't have an affiliation to research organisation? Or if you are based in the developing world, and your University can't afford the cost of journal subscriptions?


What is Open Research?

Open Research resources