Open science looks free, but check the tag

Tim Lougheed
July 5, 2023

American efforts to promote open science (OS) will put pressure on lagging Canadian interest in doing the same, according to two Ottawa-based researchers who have published a detailed analysis of the subject. 

“Canada is not yet in a position of leadership in OS, according to David Moher, a senior scientist in the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute’s Clinical Epidemiology Program, and Kelly Cobey, a scientist leading the University of Ottawa Heart Institute’s Meta-research and Open Science Program.  

Writing in the journal Facets, their conclusion echoes last year’s findings from a round table discussion published by the Office of the Chief Science Advisor, which noted “Canada is not an international leader in Open Science but could catch up if actions are taken now.”

The notion of open science emerged with academic journals in the 17th century, when members of the scientific community committed to making their findings publicly accessible. The nature of these publications changed dramatically in the 20th century, with the rise of a highly concentrated scientific publishing industry reaping huge profits from an endless succession of unpaid contributors and a captive audience forced to pay exorbitant subscription prices.

Over the past two decades, open science advocates have launched an alternative array of scientific journals, freely accessible online. Their business model pays editorial staff with fees levied from article authors, whose work is peer reviewed as it would be at any other academic journal, but who are now expected to support the publication directly.

The introduction of this imposed cost on researchers has prompted calls for research funding bodies to provide additional support to cover the expense of publishing finished work, the ostensible goal of supporting the research in the first place. Moher and Cobey point out that Canada’s main granting councils have yet to offer such dedicated funding, which would serve the dual purpose of enhancing public scientific literacy and authors’ career prospects, the latter being tied to research publication records.

Such demands could grow louder in the wake of an August 2022 announcement by the US White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) requiring any federally funded research to be immediately accessible to the public. Although that requirement does not become mandatory until January 2026, it puts scientific publishers on notice that they will have to have to alter their business models accordingly, should they want to present articles by researchers whose work received such funding.

The OSTP’s move also puts members of the Canadian research community on notice, as many of them regularly collaborate with American colleagues who receive US federal support. In this way, they could find themselves on the hook for publication payments to open access journals, which can amount to thousands of dollars. In the absence of additional funding for such fees, such researchers may attempt to expand their publication record by turning to “predatory” journals, with less authoritative editorial oversight and reputation, but also less onerous fees for open access publishing.

Moher and Cobey describe how this pressure to publish can extend to a hoarding of the source data used in scientific work, which will remain unavailable not just to the public, but also to other researchers who could use it to confirm or replicate findings.

“Researchers may want to keep their data and not share it due to the perverse incentive structures at universities and other research organizations,” they state, referring to the commonly used metric of journal impact factor (JIF). “The JIF is a bad proxy for the quality of an article. Universities could modify that promotion and tenure criteria to support data sharing and OS more generally.”

For their part, Canada’s three main research granting councils cite the virtues of open science in an FAQ document about their official data management policy.

“As part of the Open Government Partnership, the Government of Canada has, through its biennial national action plans on open government, committed to making government-funded science open and transparent to Canadians. Specifically, the plans have expressed the Government of Canada’s commitment to open science through working with international partners in developing open science policies, exploring supportive incentive structures, and identifying good practices for promoting increased access to the results of publicly funded research, including scientific data and publications.”

In 2020, the Chief Science Advisor of Canada offered a Roadmap for Open Science, which similarly tackles the principles behind making data and publications as widely accessible as possible. Although this document inspired government departments, such as Natural Resources Canada and the Public Health Agency of Canada, to draft their own such roadmaps, none of these documents mention the prospect of finding money to help researchers operate in an open science publication environment and librarians develop the expertise to archive data in open source formats.

For Moher and Cobey, therefore, the American initiative is a pointed reminder of the ground Canada can make up between now and 2026, with the right attention. “It is possible that a strong Canadian response, like the OSTP initiative in the US, aligning ourselves with the international community might bring us closer to a leadership position, particularly for data sharing.”




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