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Openness benefits our research and society

Date:19 February 2019
Author:Giulia Trentacosti
Marian Joëls
Marian Joëls

Openness benefits our research and society

An interview with Marian Joëls, Professor of Neurosciences, Dean and board member of the UMCG.

'So far, the scientific community has too often tended to look inwards – we have thought of ourselves mostly as the senders of information and sometimes, we have failed to listen to society – although don’t get me wrong, there are many excellent examples of strong interaction with citizens and patients in the UMCG. Going forward, I think it’s important to establish a more constructive dialogue between the scientific community and the public.'

What does open science mean to you?

To me, open science not only refers to access to publications and data, but also to how scientific findings are shared with society. The open science movement has helped us to realize that as scientists, we have an obligation towards society, and that the public should be more involved in setting the scientific agenda.

Of course, I am not saying that research is only valuable when it addresses societal needs or that it should always find immediate application in society. However, I do think that it is good to be continuously aware of the needs and priorities of society.

Even for a basic scientist, it can be refreshing to listen to the needs of the people. One of the turning points in my career was when I was invited as a speaker at a conference on Rett syndrome (a rare non-inherited postnatal genetic neurological disorder). Parents of Rett syndrome patients were present at this conference and I was totally unprepared for this. At that time, I was a basic neuroscientist who almost never had any contact with patients or the relatives of patients. I noticed that having parents in the lecture hall and engaging with them really made a difference for me. I believe that being in touch with potential future applications gives more value to what you do – even when you work at the very fundamental level.

In the health sciences, involving patients early on in the research process is becoming more common. Patient groups are very knowledgeable and it is really valuable to involve them when designing your study. Patients are not scientific experts, but they are experts in their condition. For instance, there have been cases where medical devices or apps have been developed, only to be rejected when ultimately tested on their intended users, because the users found them inconvenient. This sort of problem can be prevented easily if we involve patients and other stakeholders from the beginning of the research project. Here at the UMCG, we have the Leidende Coalitie Patiëntenparticipatie, which aims to initiate a constructive debate about patient involvement.

What’s your view on open data?

For me the driving question is: does making data open benefit science and society? I think the answer is yes.

To give you an example, I am currently involved in building a consortium for one study and we are approaching researchers who have collected data on this topic over the past 10 years to ask if they can share their unpublished data, often from small pilot studies. What we came across in many cases is that people have lost the unpublished data, or have lost touch with the person who was responsible for the dataset. This is a very inefficient way to deal with data management. Data should be stored in a way which is accessible and remains accessible over the years, so that we don’t waste our efforts, time and money. We as scientists have to start thinking about data management right from the start of a project. We also need to realize that handling research data in the right way is an integral part of doing good science.

One of the benefits of open data is that it provides opportunities for less affluent countries since it allows researchers there to access and use datasets without the need to invest in collecting new data. Of course, there are also some downsides to this. In some cases, the possibility of using open datasets gives governments – or companies – a reason not to invest in collecting new data. In the long run, if you don’t invest in new data, there will be no scientific progress.

There has been a tremendous cultural shift over the last few years. Fifteen years ago, opening your data for everyone to reuse would have been simply unthinkable. One thing that still needs to be defined is how to acknowledge and reward the effort and money that people or institutions spend to collect and share datasets. If referring to a database counted as much as citing a publication, this would encourage scientists to make their data open because they would see that this practice is acknowledged and rewarded. This issue is closely intertwined with the discussion about the evaluation of scientific output.

And, of course, there are a lot of issues related to privacy regulations which also need to be resolved, especially since privacy regulations are becoming stricter.

Another change that I have noticed is that researchers are increasingly adopting collaborative approaches to data collection and analysis. It is becoming common to establish consortia to collect data and to publish results afterwards. The driving force behind this change is that researchers see the benefit of collaborative work since large databases are much more solid, which improves the replicability of studies.

I fully support this shift towards openness in the research process since it improves the quality and efficiency of science, it speeds up scientific advancement and promotes teamwork.

What is your view on Plan S?

I think that the plan as it was presented in September 2018 was quite strict, but the requirements have been relaxed a bit in the implementation guidance by – for now – allowing green open access (although with no embargo and under an open license), especially for cases where publishing gold open access is not possible.

The plan has created a lot of turmoil among researchers. People are concerned that young researchers will not be able to publish in high-impact journals and that this will be detrimental for their careers. I think that this touches on another issue: how important do we perceive these high-impact journals to be? I think we should focus more on the content rather than on the journals. We should evaluate the value of a work – its contribution and scientific impact – rather than the venue of publication. This is also true for my own work: I am a highly cited author (top 1% cited authors in the field), but I haven’t had a paper in Nature or Science for quite some years. It doesn’t matter, people recognize the work anyway. The future will tell what good science is; if nobody can replicate your work, it’s not a valuable contribution to science – no matter that it was published in Nature.

The open science movement calls for a change in research evaluation. Will you change the evaluation system at the UMCG?

We have already changed how we evaluate our staff by allowing more diversification in career paths. We came from a situation in which the most important thing for your career was how many papers you published, in which journals you published them, how many citations you had and how much money you earned from external sources. Now, we are starting to ask our staff things such as: what is your vision on education and knowledge transfer, how do you interact with external stakeholders, what are your efforts in outreach and public engagement activities, what is your management and teamwork style, and so on. By asking these questions, we indicate that we value those things and that they are also part of an academic career. Academic careers should not just depend on the number of high-ranking publications that you have. In my view, for evaluating research we should focus more on the content, which is of course more complex than administrating the impact factor of journals.

Which objectives do you want to achieve with regard to open science?

I think the main obstacle is changing academic culture. So far, the scientific community has too often tended to look inwards – we have thought of ourselves mostly as the senders of information and sometimes, we have failed to listen to society – although don’t get me wrong, there are many excellent examples of strong interaction with citizens and patients in the UMCG. Going forward, I think it’s important to establish a more constructive dialogue between the scientific community and the public.

I also strongly believe that career paths should be diversified and that we need the entire spectrum, from very fundamental to very applied research. Basic and applied researchers benefit from communication, from understanding and respecting the value of each other’s work – that’s what I see as my mission as the Dean of this institution.

Right now, the UMCG publishes around 3,200 peer-reviewed research articles per year. My goal is not to reach 4,000 publications in the next few years. My goal is that we do impactful work – scientific or societal impact – at both the basic and applied level, ensuring that our research can eventually be applied to benefit patients. Our aim should be to do science with an impact on future generations. 

About the author

Giulia Trentacosti
Open Access and Scholarly Communication Specialist, University of Groningen Library
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