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June 27, 2013

Open practices make for strange bed fellows

Open approaches are now familiar in all aspects of our daily lives. With governments spearheading initiatives to make the information they hold available to all and developments such as open source software now changing the way we work, communicate and play.

Open policies are already widely in use in the academic world and all the indicators show that this is an unstoppable trend. For future Research Excellence Framework exercises, the Higher Education Funding Council for England is proposing to adopt an ‘open by default’ policy that will require all research papers to be open access and to be deposited in institutional repositories. And it is expected that the EU’s next big funding round – Horizon 2020 – will embrace open culture and practices, including by requiring high levels of openness from all those who apply for funds, as well as funding a data sharing pilot.

At its simplest, an open approach to content is about giving everyone the freedom to access information, modify it and to re-use it in any way they choose. Digital technology is making this possible and thanks to open practices and developments such as massive open online courses (MOOCs), open access and open source software, knowledge is being democratised and made available to more and more people across the planet.

Open practices have the power to transform learning, teaching and research processes not just for those who are accessing learning for the first time, but also for academics, making it quicker to find answers and the best solutions and allowing them to iron out errors and inconsistencies on the hoof.

The Polymath Project is a good example. Mathematician Tim Gowers posted a maths problem on his blog, which has been designed specifically to invite collaboration from interested individuals, irrespective of their educational background and qualifications. 800 comments on the blog later and the problem was solved, with highly valuable additional insights being gathered along the way. Most of those who contributed were only able to do so because of the open approach that was taken. The rich potential for chance meetings and unexpected connections is one of the key advantages that an open method makes possible.

It’s worth considering, too, that because Tim was working collaboratively with highly motivated and engaged people, he was able to be more rigorous and more confident in the end result of the process.

Small wonder, then, that large amounts of funding are being devoted to developing the infrastructure needed to facilitate open practice.

MyExperiment is a Jisc-funded Virtual Research Environment (VRE) developed to help researchers work openly. It aims to find, use and share scientific research work and to build communities to work collaboratively, optimising outcomes and improving efficiency. At the same time, the Knowledge Exchange is working on initiatives to meet the national strategies of the UK, Denmark, Germany, Finland and the Netherlands to encourage the use of ICT infrastructure in higher education and research. The Knowledge Exchange partners have defined their common vision as being ‘to make a layer of scholarly and scientific content openly available on the Internet’. At the same time, the Open Knowledge Foundation is working globally on open initiatives.

One of the most interesting and valuable aspects of open practice is the fact that it enables us to learn useful things in surprising places. And in the true spirit of ‘open’ there is quite a lot that institutions and researchers can learn from Wikipedia.

By its own admission, Wikipedia is not a tool for cutting edge academic enquiry or for presenting new and original findings. It is simply a collaboratively written and edited, free internet encyclopaedia, but its rapid and efficient development into a highly valued ‘go to’ information hub for generalist enquiries offers interesting insights into the philosophy, tools and systems that might support the development of open practice elsewhere.

For a start, it’s completely democratic. Entries are written by volunteers and can be edited by anyone with access to the site, as long as they have not already been blocked for breaking the site’s clearly defined rules.

Some academics would go much further down the open route than simply sharing research and its outputs. Professor Geoffrey Boulton is one. In an article in Nature last year he argued strongly for making not just research findings but also all the data that informed it openly available. He says this will allow other researchers and members of the interested public to make up their own minds about what the data reveals rather than simply relying on what the original researcher regarded as interesting or important.

He has developed his ideas on this as part of a Royal Society report and recently he has contributed to a series of workshops for the Knowledge Exchange. The Knowledge Exchange is doing detailed work on ways to incentivise the open sharing of data and to give appropriate recognition to those who do share openly.

This is important because there are many researchers who find the concept of open practices uncomfortable. The fear that their work will be taken and altered or re-used inappropriately, or used without citation and appropriate recognition is very real. Working out answers to these concerns should be a priority for those who want to make open approaches work well. Wikipedia’s own solution is to record all contributions and amendments made throughout each article’s history, and to cite the individual who made it, so that their merit can be evaluated by anyone who wants to do so. The system is a proven fit for purpose and works well even in Wikipedia’s large-scale, dynamic environment.

The real crux of the problem for researchers is the need for exposure, peer review and impact, and how these can be achieved in an open context.

As scholars move their work onto the web, and collaborate via tweets and blog posts, we need to provide solutions to their concerns. We need to develop fresh ways to recognise that these new forms of communication will both reflect enhanced scholarly impact, and support it. We need to be able to measure the scholarly impact and ascribe a value to it. We need also to recognise the genuine value of broader engagement, through systems such as altmetrics - which can give a detailed picture of exactly what is making an impact and the form that impact is taking.

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