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The state of open science at the UG - an interview with Cisca Wijmenga

Date:05 September 2023
Author:Marjan van Ittersum & Leon ter Schure
Prof. Dr. Cisca Wijmenga
Prof. Dr. Cisca Wijmenga

The University of Groningen (UG) sees the development of open science as one of its priorities for the coming years. In this series of interviews, we explore the status of open science at the UG. 

"Open science needs our continued attention to make it really part of everyone’s DNA at the UG." In this interview, we look back with Cisca Wijmenga - the UG’s Rector Magnificus until 1 September 2023 - on the development of open science at the university during her time as rector.

Open science became part of the UG's strategic plan under your auspice. How do you look back on what has been achieved?

CW: I am very happy that we made open science part of our strategy. Let me start by saying that Vera Heininga (as leader of the university’s Open Science Programme) and all others who have contributed to the programme, have done a fantastic job. We can be very proud that our university is the global leader in open access publishing and that more than 95% of our publications are openly available. But we are not there yet. Open science needs our continued attention to make it really part of everyone’s DNA at the UG. 

There is still work to be done in sharing research data. As a scientist, I am used to sharing my data. I already did this twenty years ago, also because I found it a waste of resources to only use your data for your own experiment. I notice that researchers sometimes find this difficult. Give others the opportunity to reuse your data and answer whole new questions with it.

Is open science part of the DNA in genetics, your own area of expertise?

CW: Yes, genetics is certainly a precursor in data sharing. Researchers in our field are used to sharing their materials through public repositories, because they realize that science is a collaborative effort. 

It also makes sense that data is shared, because scientific research is funded with public money. I listened to a podcast about a pastry chef who published all his recipes in a book, which is quite unique in the culinary business. He referred to his neighboring butcher who made a delicious pate. When the butcher died, however, this fantastic recipe disappeared with him and no-one could reproduce this pate anymore. So this pastry chef who published his recipes was confident that people would still buy his pastries even if they had his recipes. I think this is a nice analogy for how science should work: turn transparency into your strength.  

Sharing data is also important to allow others to validate your findings. You can always make a mistake. In genetics we have established standards for reproducing all research findings. Articles are only accepted when they are validated independently. I always found this process quite scary, especially when I found an amazing result of which I thought: ‘this is too good to be true’. But at the same time it was also reassuring that we had the process of independent validation and most of the time see our findings confirmed in independent datasets. 

Another important driving force behind a culture change towards open science is to recognize and reward open science practices. What has been achieved in this respect? 

CW: We can still make gains here. Maybe researchers should have their own portfolio, in which they indicate their achievements regarding open science. This could be discussed during Results & Development interviews. Such a portfolio should not only be focused on the amount of papers you published but also address the impact you made: ‘How transparent are you?’ ‘Have you deposited your protocols?’, ‘How often has your data been reused?’

It would also be helpful if people got credited for sharing their data, for instance as nanopublications, which is something that Barend Mons worked on in Leiden. This helps to change the mindset of researchers: to feel that sharing your data is not ‘giving it away’ but that sharing is something to be proud of. How cool is it that you can say that your dataset has been reused thirty times? 

In genetics, all contributors to a publication are usually credited: the creator of a dataset, data analysts, people responsible for funding, etc. Science is not the work of one person alone but always teamwork. How great is it to be able to specify this? This was also one of the drivers for me to start this Open Science Programme. 

To what extent is organizing open science support for researchers important?

CW: This is very important. We should make things as simple as possible, through standardization and automation. If a researcher has to jump through twenty hoops, they will think ‘never mind’. It is also important that support staff connect with researchers early on. For this we have our data support services, such as the Digital Competence Centre (UG DCC) and in the UMCG the Data Science Center in Health (DASH). The UG DCC has data stewards in faculties; it would be great if we would achieve that researchers who start a project by default think ‘let me first sit down with a DCC-representative’.

PhD students especially could benefit from thinking beforehand about their research design, how to document things and how and where to store data. In my group it was forbidden to store data on your own laptop. Everything was stored on a central server, because otherwise all data would be gone if people left. I think that open science cannot be achieved without a DCC, it all starts with a good support infrastructure. This requires a sustained long-term effort. You need a number of early adopters that can function as ambassadors. And eventually group leaders should make this way of working the norm.

In our interview-series with faculty deans and open science ambassadors of the UG we heard back that researchers want to engage more in open science practices such as creating Open Educational Resources , but simply lack the time. Should we allocate more time to implementing open science?

CW: I notice that within the university there is a tendency to measure everything you do in time. While I think that we should put more focus on what it is that you do. I feel that activities such as sharing your data, writing articles but also creating open educational materials are all an integral part of academic research and education and should hence form part of the regular work of researchers and lecturers. 

The European Council recently expressed its concern about rising costs for access to scientific publications and publishing open access. It advises a scholarly publishing model that is not-for-profit and open access, with no costs for authors or readers. What is your perspective on this? 

CW: I must say that I find this quite complicated. ‘For free’ does not exist, of course. Somewhere people must put in work and servers need to be in place, all of which costs money. I like the preprint servers that are out there now, where researchers can publish preliminary versions of their work openly and receive feedback. But pre-prints must eventually enter the regular peer-review process of a journal, because the comments on the  preprints can be biased. Even non-for-profit journals need reviewers and editors, which does not come for free. Although there is of course a difference between the Nature publishing group and an open access publisher such as PLOS. 

I do see the problem with big publishers such as Elsevier, which have kind of a monopoly position in scholarly publishing. But I also know many editors of the Nature Publishing Group who are employed there and have specialized knowledge, for instance on statistics. This is something different than a scientist who is ‘also’ editor for a journal as a job on the side. These editors also see what the trends in a specific field are. The standards for handling research data in genetics that I mentioned before were introduced by Nature. At a certain point they concluded that having ten different standards was not workable. These kinds of contributions help to maintain high quality science, which is very important. Especially with an increasing amount of bogus journals out there, which I find a very worrisome development.

Can university presses like the University of Groningen Press (UGP) make a difference? 

CW: Yes, but again: someone pays the bill. It is very nice that these publishers are there now. But also in this case it is important to keep the quality high. It is not easy to organize a good editorial board, I have been in editorial boards myself. There is also a difference between publishing books and journals. It is great that the UGP has started publishing inaugural lectures

May we ask you to react to the following statements?

‘Publishing in top journals is more important than publishing open access’

CW: You can of course also publish open access in top journals, but yes, I do find it important that you publish in top journals. Because, as I indicated before, the quality check there is very strict. It also means that you are working on the frontiers of knowledge, otherwise you would simply not get published in Nature or Science. I am not saying that your research is not of high quality when you do not publish in top journals, but real ‘transformative research’ ends up in these kinds of journals. 

‘Scientific publications should always be the most important criterion for evaluating researchers.’

CW: I agree, because these are judged by your peers and this check is important. This is something else from counting publications, which you see reflected in the tenure track system. I consider one publication in Nature as more important than ten publications in mediocre journals. We should pay more attention to the impact of science. And publishing says something about impact. You can say what you want about citations, but when your paper is not cited it was not a very important article. You can also be highly cited in a low-impact journal, but generally speaking articles in top journals are cited more because this research is more exciting and transformative. 

‘Especially young researchers are committed to open science’ 

CW: There is increased openness among the younger generation towards open science, valuing its importance. It is important not to overgeneralize, but their embrace of this approach is promising for the future, as they are the researchers of the future.

‘Open and FAIR research data are a precondition for high quality research’

CW: Yes, definitely. I like the term FAIR and what it stands for. I already practiced this before the acronym even existed. To be ‘Interoperable’ and ‘Findable’ is simply very important. You cannot be interoperable if you have not documented properly how you generated your data. These data are not ‘Reusable’ and I am a big supporter of reusing data. And ‘Accessibility’ is of course a precondition for this. I work a lot with human data, meaning that you cannot share everything openly because of privacy-concerns. Sometimes only metadata and anonymized data can be shared. Research should be as open as possible and as closed as necessary.

About the author

Marjan van Ittersum & Leon ter Schure

Marjan van Ittersum is assistant and deputy program manager of the Open Science Programme of the University of Groningen.

Leon ter Schure is team lead of the UG's Digital Competence Centre and pillar leader for the FAIR Data & Software pillar in the Open Science Programme.