Openness Opens Doors

After operating for decades by a certain set of rules, some researchers might be anxious about adapting to the Open and Responsible Science guidelines now being promoted by the Dutch government, the national academic establishment, and the university. But two Erasmus University Rotterdam scholars who recently won awards for their Open Science work say that although the guidelines take getting used to, this new way of working offers advantages to the public, to the academic community – and even to the researcher. 

“It’s a win-win. You give to others, but they also give to you,” says Aurélie Lemmens, Associate Professor of Marketing at the Rotterdam School of Management, and winner of the Erasmus Research Institute of Management’s Open Science Award for 2021.  

Anne Bülow, a PhD student at the Department of Psychology, Education & Child Studies (DPECS) and winner of the Convergence Health and Technology Open Research Award for 2021, agrees that Open Science is a better approach for society and the individual scientist. “What keeps me going [with Open Science] is that it improves my output,” she says.   

Transparency and accessibility 

Although precise guidelines vary by discipline, the general aim of the Open Science movement is to add transparency and accessibility to a system that had begun to encourage the generation of non-replicable results and limit access to cutting-edge ideas, a fact that critics of traditional science find particularly galling, given that so much research is funded by taxpayers.  

The RIOT Science Club, which is one part of the inter-institutional group that gave Bülow her award, was initially founded at King’s College London in 2018 and brought to Rotterdam by graduate students at Erasmus University Medical Center and Erasmus University Rotterdam. The mission of RIOT (the initials stand for Reproducible, Interpretable, Open, and Transparent), as they state it on their website, is a fair description of the Open Science movement generally, being to “promote the accessibility of learning to all, be it scientists, clinicians, or the public, and we strive for reproducible and easily interpretable results, analyses and codes.” 

“You do more thinking beforehand but then when you really work on the project, it’s quicker, because you have a plan and you know what steps need to be taken,” says Bülow.

For the researcher, public accountability begins at an early stage, with pre-registration of the hypotheses and analysis of the project. Bülow says that registering plans at this stage serves both to make the research process more transparent and to improve the design of the study.

Overall, Bülow finds that this work doesn’t add to the amount of time it takes to do a research project, but it has led her to reallocate how she spends her time. “You do more thinking beforehand,” she explains, “but then when you really work on the project, it’s quicker, because you have a plan and you know what steps need to be taken.”

Pre-registration is just the first step for the Open Science scientist. Bülow, who has preregistered several scientific articles, publishes all her work on freely accessible platforms and shares a great deal of other information as well, including her software code and any questionnaires used. Open Science protocols favor the early release of articles and material on a free platform, instead of withholding it for the year or two it generally takes for research to be reviewed, accepted, edited, and published by an expensive, refereed journal.

For time-sensitive research – as for instance, Bülow’s work on how families were coping with lockdown – publication of preprints can help a research stream move forward much more quickly than it might otherwise, and to a wider audience. 

“Making my code accessible motivates me to make it better, more efficient, more self-explanatory and better documented which in the end helps me a lot,” explains Lemmens.

Creating opportunities

Open science also creates more opportunities for non-authors as well. The project for which Lemmens won her award was a method she developed to harness machine learning as a tool to optimize corporate strategies. By making it available on open platforms, other scientists and stakeholders are now able to use it for their own research.

Likewise, Lemmens credits the software she has been able to borrow from other scholars with helping her to advance more quickly with her own work. “In my case, making my code accessible motivates me to make it better, more efficient, more self-explanatory and better documented which in the end helps me a lot,” she explains. “Hopefully it also helps other researchers in their own endeavors.”

For Bülow, the fact that a lot of academic research in the Netherlands is taxpayer supported is another argument for full disclosure. “I think it’s more than fair that we really openly and transparently share what we’re doing and not hide it for our own personal benefit,” she says.

Other aspects of Open Science are still a work in progress, however, and Erasmus scholars are at the forefront of some of that work. Lemmens, for example, is developing new ways for researchers working with private partners to post their results without violating anonymity or non-disclosure agreements. The R and Python software packages she developed are now creating new opportunities for public-private collaborations, according to the jury of the ERIM Open Science award.

Getting started 

If you haven’t already, how should you get started with Open Science? Bülow and Lemmens offer a few suggestions: 

  • Start small. “It can be quite overwhelming if you want to make everything at all moments transparent,” Bülow says. Instead, she suggests, take a few limited but meaningful steps first, such as posting your next article online as a preprint instead of waiting for publication in a journal. 
  • Look for the low-hanging fruit. In the beginning, implement the aspects of Open Science that will help your own workflow, for instance, document your code and make it available, Lemmens says.  
  • Connect with other Open Scientists. “Get in touch with colleagues who already apply some open science practices or colleagues who also want to get started,” Bülow suggests.

Common goals, common sense

Of course, beyond the personal advantages, Bülow and Lemmens agree that Open Science can accelerate progress generally, just as virologists were able to develop COVID-19 vaccines much more quickly by pooling their insights rather than keeping their knowledge to themselves.  “If we work together on the same goal,” says Bülow, “we reach it faster.”

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