In 2013, Emile, a 2-year-old boy, passed away in the village of Meliandou, Guinea. For several days, he had been suffering from unexplained symptoms: fever, vomiting and black faeces. Soon after, Emile’s mother, sister and grandmother died of similar symptoms.
In spring 2014, identical deaths were observed in Liberia, Nigeria, Senegal and Sierra Leone. Three months after Emile’s death, West Africa was in the throes of the worst Ebola epidemic in recent memory.
Between 2013 and 2016, the epidemic claimed the lives of more than 11,300 people, while some 29,000 individuals contracted the virus. According to certain researchers, the epidemic could have been prevented or at least geographically limited if research data concerning Ebola had been more available.
Only accessible knowledge helps
Heidi Laine, a doctoral student in economic and social history at the University of Helsinki, presents the case as an example of open science and its significance to society.
“I cannot say with certainty whether information, or anything else for that matter, could have prevented the epidemic. But societies are founded on knowledge, which is why it’s important that decision-makers, journalists and citizens have access to it. If the products of research, in other words research results and related material, are made increasingly open, our effectiveness in solving global problems will improve,” says Laine.
Contrary to popular belief, Ebola was not a phenomenon new to West Africa. As early as in the 1970s and 1980s, European researchers had identified Ebola antibodies in the blood of local inhabitants. However, these results never reached the local population, and later the scientific knowledge published in European academic journals was confined behind digital paywalls.
As a result of restricted access to this knowledge, no authorities or medical professionals were aware of Ebola occurrences in the region.
The disease had free reign to spread and do damage.
Open source + science = open science
The availability of research knowledge is only one subject among many on which Laine has strong opinions. She thinks openness should be a natural part of the research process in all of its stages. In terms of conventional research practices, such openness by default is a radical thought. However, Laine stresses that radical openness does not require a rebel attitude from scholars.
“What it boils down to is that all stages of research, from funding applications to data acquisition and analysis, are conducted as openly and transparently as possible. This way, anyone can follow the research, participate in the process and benefit from its results.”
In practice, openness is achieved through the utilisation of web-based services and software which make it possible to both process and share research material, such as data, and which also support the generation of metadata. Such services have been mapped, for example, in Innovations in Scholarly Communication, a project carried out at Utrecht University.
“Of course, research that justifiably requires confidentiality need not be made openly available. But withholding information just in case should not be considered good scientific practice,” Laine adds.
Small contributions can lead to breakthroughs
NMRLipids, a project in molecular physics led by Finnish researchers Samuli Ollila and Markus Miettinen, is an example of radically open research. The project investigates water-in-oil lipid bilayers through computational, or non-experimental, methods. Laine is observing the project as part of her doctoral dissertation.
All discussion related to the project is conducted in a blog environment, and the generated data is transferred to a GitHub website where it is freely accessible and available for use. This practice differs greatly from the traditional way of conducting research in a closed research group.
“In the NMRLipids project, getting credit for authoring articles is based on self-assessment, and authorship opportunities are provided to all project participants. The project instigators do not make value judgements on participant contributions, but everyone does it themselves if they consider their contribution to be significant. So far, there have been no free riders in the project,” Laine explains.
That does not sound too exceptional – unless you are familiar with academia. The dominant way of producing and publishing knowledge is based on century-old traditions that have remained puzzlingly unchanged to this day.
“For instance, assessing the impact of research and the merits of scholars solely on the basis of the number of peer-reviewed publications and their publication platform is quite absurd,” says Laine.
NMRLipids is employing another option. The project has dozens of participants, and even if the contribution of some is relatively small, it may well be precisely their findings that result in a scientific breakthrough.
Fear of leaks often baseless
In addition to being old-fashioned, the current system is rather ruthless to scholars. Publish or perish, goes the old adage: without publications, a research career will come to a premature end, even if the scholar produces a good deal of important information by other means.
“I have occasionally been accused of wanting to consign research articles to the trash bin. That’s not what I want, but I believe that a great amount of information is being produced during the research process which should be recognised as valuable and published. At the moment, swathes of knowledge are left in the dark, since value is placed on published articles only.”
Fear of “scoops” is one reason for the scarcity of openness. This term, originating in the world of media, means that a certain party reports on a piece of news before anyone else. Naturally, nobody wishes to present such opportunities to competitors, which is why the data and sources of a research project are kept very confidential.
“I have found no evidence at all to support the notion that openness would increase leaks. Admittedly, the practices of open science are yet to be established, making the amount of evidence scarce. However, I find it a reasonable assumption that responsibly implemented openness will also protect researchers by uncovering content and identifying the original authors.”
Laine thinks that the risks associated with openness are small compared to its potential.
“Those with the best knowhow do not necessarily work in the same building or country, or even in the same field. Breakthroughs are born much more likely through the open availability of research knowledge. They often occur by chance, based on an excellent infrastructure provided by digitalisation.”
Ruthlessness of scholarship the greatest obstacle
Why is radical openness not increasing faster despite its benefits?
According to Laine, the methods and tools of radical openness are still unfamiliar to many. Their use can also be considered extra work, which at first it actually is. But Laine thinks that the main reason is much more human, and related to a culture of ruthlessness common to academia.
“In science, as elsewhere, incompleteness is poorly tolerated. Surrounded by a multitude of brilliant individuals, one can easily have feelings of insignificance,” says Laine.
In such cases, it is human nature to wish for as much renown and respect for a research project to which one has contributed, shying away from sharing it with others. There is another perspective, that of collaboration and kindness. That is the route taken by Laine.
“Personally, I have found openness relaxing. After showing my hand, I have nothing to fear,” Laine says.
- ICOS: Open data for international environmental research
- Citizen Mindscapes – open data from the minds of the Finnish people
- Anything is possible for this Internet of Things wizard – even secure open science
- Citizen science – open-source research
Read more about open science on the University of Helsinki Open science site