Open Science offers economic benefits, but not without structural changes and researcher buy-in

By Alex Navarre & Peter Morand

Alex Navarre, Associé de recherche at École de technologie supérieure (ÉTS) and Founding Director of the NSERC Quebec Office, and Peter Morand, life sciences consultant and investor and past president of NSERC

Open Science (OS) has been presented as a better way to substantiate the transparency and integrity that scientific research commands. It has been conceived as a new way to offer full access to research results and research streams leading to those results. Some have even ventured that OS can facilitate intellectual property rights, namely patents. In view of the many expectations placed on OS, some clarifications are needed with respect to its implications and potential impact.

Growing momentum for Open Science

In Canada, two specialized health research groups — the Structural Genomics Consortium (SGC) and McGill’s Neuro (Montreal Neurological Institute) — have pushed to adopt OS. Aled Edwards, SGC’s CEO, has presented examples where OS principles have accelerated the process of taking discoveries to clinical application. At McGill, OS was the cornerstone of its successful 2016 proposal to the Canada First Research Excellence Fund for the Open McGill Neuroscience Initiative. This was followed by a $20-million donation that led to the creation of the Tanenbaum Open Science Institute “to accelerate the generation of knowledge and novel effective treatments for brain disorders.”

OS has become a global movement, with followers in Canada, the United States, Japan, the European Union, and elsewhere. The EU and Japan have both implemented national programs supporting OS. The UK Wellcome Trust, the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH), and the American Howard Hughes Medical Institute recently launched an Open Science Prize to unleash the power of open content and data to advance biomedical research and its applications for health benefit. In Canada, the Networks of Centres of Excellence have paved the road to OS through their partnership endeavours.

More recently, Innovation, Science and Economic Development (ISED) adopted a Roadmap for Open Science, as recommended by Canada’s Chief Scientist, Mona Nemer. The U15 Group of Canadian Research Universities endorsed this policy document and is a signatory to the Sorbonne Declaration on Research Data Rights. At a time when ethics in science, speedy publication pressure and peer review have been under fire, it isn’t surprising that universities and governments have adopted policies that permit better access and assessment of scientific results. It will also require the granting councils to review their respective guidelines for applications and criteria for award decisions.

An industry advantage?

The grey literature, as patents are affectionately described, has been partially open for centuries, due to the requirement for full disclosure of claims’ justifications, as well as compliance for reproducibility of the results. Even so, there is no obligation in the patent literature to divulge the whole scientific stream behind an invention, as OS demands.

In fact, OS is compatible with patenting activities or any other form of IP protection. It may even provide more documentation to support it, and so facilitate industry adoption. In terms of the due diligence expected from industry, OS may prove to be an advantage.

But even though OS may foster collaboration and sharing, it could also induce perverse effects, such as free-riders who shortcut the long process of research through the new fast track of approvals and pre-publication.

So, will OS become a vector for accelerating the translation of scientific results into the economy? Will industry be favoured by such a measure? Will governments see it as a way to increase public-private partnerships and the commercialization of research results by universities and colleges?

The need for buy-in

Adoption of OS policies will mean that University Research Offices will need to become even more stringent when receiving inventions from their researchers and thereby reduce the number of “vanity patents.”  In a first-to-patent system, now almost standardized among Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT) signatories, background work may become prior art by virtue of the availability offered to the public via OS, in addition and in support of publications. We recommend caution with respect to claims that the net effect will be to reduce the number of patents filed in the future.

It is interesting to note that the Research Excellence Framework (REF) adopted in 2014 in the UK has transformed the way scientific results are presented and weighted in an anonymous way (blind panels) for ranking and funding purposes. This system is not just based on citations but has incorporated the notion and factors of impact.  Such an approach may further discourage redundant research and promote true inventiveness and accrued relevance, an essential ingredient for a sustainable economy. The question is whether or not the alignment of interests between government policymakers, industry decision-makers and university administrators will succeed in capturing researcher’s compliance.

It is our feeling that without the buy-in of researchers, as well as changes in mentalities and reward systems, OS may simply remain an elegant policy buzzword. It is not clear that, apart from rare initiatives, research centers are taking the steps to facilitate the implementation of OS, let alone accompanying researchers with the additional burden and costs it implies.

Universities presently face numerous structural challenges and pressures from their stakeholders. Can OS be a real priority in those circumstances? While OS is definitely a positive policy position, its acceptance by researchers may not be a given, nor is it certain what impact it will have for universities and their role in society, particularly towards the economy. In this respect, it’s time to start thinking about an evaluation of the OS policy.