Open Science is here to stay: the sooner we embrace its principles, the better

14 December 2017
How Lennart Martens and Paola Masuzzo are spreading the word worldwide

In the last couple of decades, making research output public or using freely available data has become a widespread practice. But although open science is gradually but irreversibly becoming the new standard, much groundwork still needs to be done. To rally more people around the approach and to further integrate it into day-to-day lab work, the hearts and minds of individual scientists have to be conquered as well. That’s what the recent paper titled “Do you speak open science?” by Lennart Martens and Paola Masuzzo of the VIB-UGent Center for Medical Biotechnology is all about: offering a handy open science user guide to researchers, laboratories and the scientific community at large.

In their highly acclaimed paper, Lennart and Paola describe why many researchers are often in the dark about how they can contribute to open science. Because the term has only gained momentum recently, its definition and implementation are constantly shifting and evolving. Nonetheless, four distinct pillars can be
distinguished: open data (online data that is free to download, copy, analyze, re-process or use), open source (freely available software code), open access (unrestricted access to scientific papers and articles) and open peer review: reviewers’ names and comments are published alongside the article, and sometimes review is even opened to anybody who wants to contribute through a process similar to commenting on a blog post.

Standing on the shoulders of giants
Obviously, Paola and Lennart walk the talk: their paper was published on PeerJ Preprints, an open access journal. Even more, they submitted the article as a ‘preprint’: a draft that wasn’t submitted for formal peer review, yet allowed readers to leave comments and ask questions. The guide caused quite a stir among scientific communities, it was tweeted and cited all over the world, and it was even used as one of the source texts for a report of the European Commission’s Working Group on Education and Skills under Open Science.

Lennart, how did you become such an ardent proponent of open science?
Lennart: “Around the year 2000, I was working in the software industry. As a keynote speaker at a Microsoft event, I met Marc Portier, a fellow IT specialist who was a great supporter of open source code. In software, making code freely available and building on each other’s work has a long tradition: it clears the path to faster and better innovation. I became intrigued and delved into the subject, only to find out that the same principles apply to sharing data, articles and other output. When I began working at VIB a couple of years later, I designed PRIDE, the world’s first public repository for proteomics data (see page 8, ed.). Witnessing the successes that we and other labs achieved with PRIDE only strengthened my belief in open science; this is how science was meant to be! After all, the metaphor ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’, describing the fact that it’s easier to reach much further when you’re able to climb on a solid foundation of existing work, dates back to the 12th century!”

Paola and you have been sharing your experiences and tips with the worldwide community through publications and talks. How important is this?
Lennart: “The battle for open science has already been won, and people need to realize that it is here to stay. The sooner you start embracing its principles, the better. All major funding agencies are moving towards open science as a prerequisite. Research under the Horizon 2020 umbrella, for example, requires publication in open access journals. And the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, one of the world’s most influential funders, has even forbidden the publication of their funded work in journals such as Nature and Science. Other funders such as the Wellcome Trust may well follow this example. It’s understandable that traditional publishers want to cling to their outdated but still very profitable business model. In due time, however, they will have no choice but to compromise.”

Then what’s next?
Lennart: “More and more funding bodies will follow. Eventually, top scientists will leave currently prestigious journals and adopt open access and open peer review. As a result, journal impact factors will shift, or even become obsolete. Let’s be honest: we all know that JIFs are in no way representative of the value or impact of a single paper. Yet the pressure to publish in top journals pushes excellent scientists out of the academic world.

Having said that, the pace of this process is also determined from the bottom-up: researchers have to be aware of the possibilities of open science and identify what’s in it for them.”

The proof is, as usual, in the pudding. Can you give one example of a science domain or research field that has considerably benefitted from open science?
Lennart: “People with rare genetic diseases have benefitted tremendously from the Human Genome Project, which was assembled when scientists from around the world shared all their data. These findings have not just made it considerably easier to diagnose people, but also to pinpoint the exact cause of a genetic disorder – be it a spontaneous mutation or a hereditary issue.”

How can individual researchers or labsjoin the growing community?
Lennart: “We can all take small steps. For example, you might try out open access journals or preprint servers, such as PeerJ Preprints or bioRxiv. Furthermore, we need to train ourselves and our students to handle open data. There are numerous free data repositories out there, but sometimes it takes a while to get the hang of these. In terms of the required basic programming skills, data handling approaches, and statistics or machine learning methods, there’s still a lot of work to be done at our universities. And my last practical tip is obvious:
read our paper! (laughs)”

Masuzzo P, Martens L., PeerJ Preprints 2017

Go back to the overview 'Open Science'

Lennart Martens

Paola Masuzzo