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The Dilemmas of Practicing Open Science

10 June 2022

Researchers starting out their careers nowadays are at a crossroads: Should they embrace the open, or should they look to conventional research practices?

By Yooeun Jeong (PhD Candidate) & Lewend Mayiwar (PhD Candidate), Department of Leadership and Organizational Behaviour, BI Norwegian Business School

A decade ago, researchers of various disciplines were confronted with the sweeping revelation that substantial parts of scientific knowledge may be built on shaky grounds. A great number of well-known findings, it turned out, could not be replicated. This so-called “replication crisis” was the spark that ignited serious concerns about the robustness and credibility of scientific findings.

Lewend Mayiwar and Yooeun Jeong

The emergence of the “Open Science” movement was a direct response to these concerns. Open science is an umbrella term for a wide range of research practices and tools aimed at improving the reliability and credibility of scientific findings, through bolstering the openness of research processes and accessibility of research findings.

Dilemmas for junior researchers

The Open Science movement is slowly but surely gaining momentum. The scientific community around the world has come to recognize the benefits and impacts it has in improving the quality of research. An increasing number of governmental bodies, academic journals, and funders nowadays expect, or even require, openness.

At the frontline of this cultural shift are the new generation of emerging researchers. Unfortunately, practicing open science as a junior researcher does not come without its challenges. Under the current incentive system in academia, researchers are evaluated in ways that do not correspond to new standards and practices. As a result, most early career researchers interested in practicing open science face a daunting task: finding a balance between embracing the new ways of doing science and maximizing their career prospects.

Novelty or transparency?

Publication is the currency of academia. It is perhaps the most important factor in career advancement. The pressure of the “publish or perish” culture is particularly strong for junior researchers. Their career prospects are strongly dependent on publishing as much as possible, in prestigious journals.

The novelty of research findings is one of the most important criteria that high-ranking journals are on the lookout for. Although studies that adopt open science practices produce findings that are more replicable and reproducible, they may be less likely to make their way into high-ranking journals.

While such journals typically favor clean results, research is not always a clean process. Unlike “closed” studies, “open” studies are more open about the behind-the-scenes messiness of the research processes, which makes it more difficult to present clean, novel findings.

This poses a difficult dilemma for early career researchers looking to adopt open science practices in their research. Should they prioritize the transparency in their research, or resort to conventional research practices to maximize their chances at securing a job?

Invest time in open science or publications?

Learning and implementing open science practices require an investment of considerable resources and time. Currently, few institutions in Norway teach open science as part of formal education programs. Therefore, learning how to practice open science is extra work that burdens early career researchers who are on temporary contracts.

Of course, this may be a worthwhile investment in the long run. As open science slowly becomes mainstream, open science-related skills will be increasingly sought after. In the short run, however, this investment means time lost that could otherwise have been spent on activities that result in immediate rewards.

Face the fear of openness or stay within the comforting confines of closed science?

Being open means being vulnerable, especially for junior researchers. It means being transparent about any potential errors and mistakes, which in turn means a higher likelihood of having to face scrutiny and criticism.

Although errors and mistakes are a natural and unavoidable part of the scientific process, the anxiety about becoming vulnerable may tempt even those who value open science to remain closed in their research. The self-doubt and feelings of incompetence that many junior researchers already experience certainly does not make it any easier.

Going forward

Despite these challenges and dilemmas, early career researchers around the world are still the leading force of the Open Science movement. In Norway too, there has been a considerable increase in grassroots initiatives led by early career researchers.

This year, the Norwegian Reproducibility Network (NORRN), a nation-wide network promoting transparency and reproducibility, was launched by a team of early career researchers at the University of Oslo. RIOT Science Club saw its first Norwegian site in 2021, also started by an early career researcher, at Østfold University College. And the first Norwegian ReproducibiliTea Journal Club was launched by yours truly, PhD students at BI Norwegian Business School in 2020.

While such initiatives make us hopeful and optimistic about the future of open science, structural changes are needed to tip the scales. The most impactful change might be putting in place a reward system that balances the incentives for “good” research behaviors against the quantity of high-impact publications. Moreover, open science should be taught as part of a formal curriculum—not only at the PhD level, but also in bachelor’s and master’s programs.

Lastly, the most important thing, in our opinion as PhD students, is support from senior researchers. They are the ones in positions of power—journal reviewers, editors, and institutional decision makers. They are also the ones that serve as supervisors for PhD students, with direct influence over how research is to be approached and carried out. As such, supervisors can either be the first line of defense deterring adoption of open science or the guiding light shining the path towards it.

Although we have been lucky enough to receive support for our pursuit of open science, not everyone might be. Whether or not a junior researchers can get support from senior researchers shouldn’t be a matter of luck. Without the mentors’ help, it may not be possible for open science to reach the critical mass required to solidify the grounds scientific knowledge is built on.

NORRN, ReproductibliTea and RIOT 

NORRN is a national initiative that aims to promote transparent and reproducible research in Norway, by establishing appropriate training activities, designing and evaluating research improvement efforts, disseminating best practices, and working with stakeholders to ensure coordination of efforts across the sector. Both researchers and institutions are welcome to join NORRN.

The ReproducibiliTea Journal Club and the RIOT Science Club are global open science initiatives first launched in the UK in 2018. Since then, they have rapidly spread to all corners of the world. ReproducibiliTea is organized in local journal clubs that aim to raise awareness and knowledge of open science. This is done through regular meetings where members read scientific articles and discuss various issues around open and reproducible research. In Norway, ReproducibiliTea currently has local journal clubs at BI Norwegian School, the University of Oslo, and the University of Bergen. RIOT is more focused on promoting knowledge of specific open science practices, by organizing a seminar series where researchers and experts are invited to speak about robust research practices.

 

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