Tag Archives: Open Research

Open Resources: Who Should Pay?

This blog is the first in a series of three which considers the perspectives of researchers, funders and universities in relation to the support for open resources, coordinated and written by Dr Lauren Cadwallader. This post asks the question: What is the responsibility of national funders to research resources that are internationally important?

In January 2017 the Office of Scholarly Communication and Wellcome Trust started an Open Research Pilot Project to try to understand how we could help our researchers work more openly and what barriers they faced with making their work open. One of the issues that is a common theme with the groups that we are working with is the issue of the sustainability of open resources.

The Virtual Fly Brain Example

Let’s take the Connectomics group I am working with for example. They investigate the connections of neurons in fly brains (Drosophila). They produce a lot of data and are committed to sharing this openly. They share their data via the Virtual Fly Brain platform (VFB).

This platform was set up in 2009 by a group of researchers in Cambridge and Edinburgh; some of the VFB team are now also involved in the Connectomics group so there is a close relationship between these projects. The platform was created as a domain-specific location to curate existing data, taken from the literature, on Drosophila neurons and for curating and sharing new data produced by researchers working in this area.

Initially it was set up thanks to a grant from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC). After an initial three year grant, the BBSRC declined to fund the database further. One likely reason for this is that the BBSRC resources scheme explicitly favours resources with a large number of UK users. The number of UK researchers who use Drosophila brain image data is relatively small (<10 labs), whereas the number of international researchers who use this data is relatively large, with an estimated 200 labs working on this type of data in other parts of the world.

Subsequently, the Wellcome Trust stepped in with funding for a further three years, due to end in September 2017. Currently it is uncertain whether or not they will fund it in the future. By now, almost eight years after its creation, VFB has become the go-to source for openly available data on Drosophila brain information and images integrated into a queryable platform. No other resource like it exists and no other research group is making moves to curate Drosophila neurobiology data openly. The VFB case raises interesting and important questions about how resources are funded and the future of domain specific open infrastructures.

The status quo

On the one hand funders like the Wellcome Trust, Research Councils UK and National Institutes of Health (NIH) are encouraging researchers to use domain specific repositories for data sharing. Yet on the other, they are acknowledging that the current approaches for these resources are not necessarily sustainable.

A recent review on building and sustaining data infrastructures commissioned by the Wellcome Trust acknowledges that in light of the FAIR principles “it is clear that data is best made available through repositories where aggregation can add most value”, which is arguably in a domain-specific repository. Use of domain-specific repositories allows data to be aggregated with similar data recorded using the same metadata fields.

It is also clear that publishers can influence where data is deposited, with publishers such as Nature Publishing Group, PLOS and F1000 all recommending subject-specific repositories as the first choice place for deposition. If no subject-specific repository is available then unstructured repositories, such as Dryad or figshare are often recommended instead, which complicates infrastructure needs and therefore provisions.

The economic model for supporting data infrastructures is something the Wellcome Trust are considering, with reports recently published by other funding agencies (here, here and here). The Wellcome Trust’s commissioned review noted that project-based funding for data infrastructures in not sustainable in the long term.

However, historically funders have encouraged, and still encourage, the use of domain specific resources, which have been born from project-based funding because of a lack of provision elsewhere. This has created a complex situation – researchers created domain specific data infrastructures using their project funding; these have become the subject norm; funder’s encourage their use, but now don’t have the mechanisms to be able to pledge sustained long-term funding.

National interests?

What is the responsibility of national funders to research resources that are internationally important? Academic research is collaborative. It crosses borders and utilises shared knowledge regardless of where it was generated and this is acknowledged by funders who see the benefits of collaboration. Yet, the strategic goals of funders, such as the BBSRC, are often focused on the national level when it comes to relevance and importance.

On the one hand it is understandable that funders concentrate on national interests – taxpayers’ money goes into the funder’s coffers and therefore they have a responsibility to those taxpayers to ensure that the money is spent on research that benefits the nation.

But, one could argue that international collaboration is in the national interest. The US-based NIH funds resources that are of international importance, including most of the model organism databases and genomic resources, such as the Gene Expression Omnibus. These are highly used by US researchers so one could argue that NIH are acting in the national interest but they are open to researchers all over the world and therefore constitute a resource of international importance.

Wellcome Trust do have a global outlook when it comes to funding, with 21% of their total spend (2015-6) going to projects outside of the UK. Yet, the VFB resource is still vulnerable despite being an internationally important resource.

One of the motivations for the Connectomics group to to participate in the Open Research Pilot is to open a dialogue with the Wellcome Trust about these issues. The Wellcome Trust are committed to strategically investing in Open Research and encourage the use of domain-specific resources. The Connectomics group are interested in how will this strategic investment translate into actual funding decisions now and into the future.

Issues on which researchers would like clarification

All the researchers who are part of the Open Research Pilot have had the opportunity to contribute to questions on open resources sustainability. Posts on the funder’s and University’s perspective will be published as parts 2 and 3 of this blog.

  1. What do you think is the responsibility of national funders towards research resources that are of more international benefit than national?
  2. How do you think the funding landscape will react to the move towards open research in terms of supporting the sustainability of resources used for curating and sharing data?
  3. Researchers are asked to share their data in domain specific resources if they are available. There are 1598 discipline specific repositories listed on re3data.org and each one needs to be supported. How big does a research community need to be to expect support?
  4. What percentage of financial support should be focussed on resources versus primary research?
  5. If funders are reluctant to pay for domain specific resources, is there a need to move to a researcher pays model for data sharing rather than centrally funding resources in some circumstances? Why? How do they envisage this being paid for?
  6. How can we harmonise the approach to sustainable open resources across a global research community? Should we move to centralised infrastructures like the European Open Science Cloud?
  7. More generally how can funders and employers help to incentivise open research (carrot or stick?)
  8. Wellcome often tries to act in a way to bring about change (e.g. open access publishing): Do they envisage that the long term funding of open research (10-20 years from now) will be very different from the situation over e.g. the next 5 years?

Published 23 June 2017
Written by Dr Lauren Cadwallader

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Reflections on Open Research – a PI’s perspective

As part of the Open Research Pilot Project, Marta Teperek met with Dr David Savage and asked him several questions about his own views and motivations for Open Research. This led to a very inspiring conversation and great reflections on Open Research from the Principal Investigator’s perspective. The main points that came out of the discussion were:

  • Lack of reproducibility raises questions about scientific rigour, integrity and relevance of work in general
  • Being open is to work in a team and be collaborative
  • Open Research will benefit science as a whole, and not the careers of individuals
  • Peer review remains a critical aspect of the scientific process
  • Nowadays, global collaboration and information exchange is possible, making the data really robust
  • Funders should emphasise the importance of research integrity and scientific rigour

This conversation is reported below in the original interview format.

Motivations for doing Open Research

Marta: To start, could you tell me why you are keen on Open Research and why did you decide to get involved in the Open Research Pilot Project?

David: Sure, but before we start I wanted to stress that when I make comments about science, these are very general comments and they don’t apply to anyone in particular.

So my general feeling is that I am very concerned and disappointed about the lack of research reproducibility in science. Lack of reproducibility raises questions about scientific rigour, integrity and relevance of work in general. Therefore, I am really keen on exploring ways of addressing these failings of science and I want to make a contribution to solving these problems. Additionally, I am aware that I am not perfect either and I want to learn how I can improve my own practice.

Were there any particular experiences which made you realise the importance of Open Research?

This is just the general experience of reading and also reviewing far too many papers where I thought that the quality of underlying data was poor, or authors were exaggerating their claims without supporting evidence. There is too much hype around, and the general awareness about the number of papers published in high impact journals which cannot be reproduced makes the move to more transparent and open approaches necessary.

Do we need additional rewards for working openly?

How do you think Open Research could benefit academic careers?

I am not sure if Open Research could or should benefit academic careers – this should not be the goal of Open Research. The goal is to improve the quality of science and therefore the benefit of science to the public. Open Research will benefit science as a whole, and not the careers of individuals. Science has become very egotistical and badge –accumulating. We should be investigating things which we find interesting. We should not be motivated by the prize. We should be motivated by the questions.

In science we have far too many people who behave like bankers. Publishing seems to be the currency for them and thus they are sloppy and lack the necessary rigour just because they want to publish as fast as they can.

In my opinion it is the responsibility of every researcher to the profession to try to produce data which is robust. It is fine to make honest mistakes. But it is not acceptable to be sloppy or fraudulent, or not to read enough literature. These are simply not good enough excuses. I’m not claiming to be perfect. But I want to constantly improve myself and my research practice.

Barriers to greater openness in research

What obstacles may be preventing researchers from making their research openly available?

The obvious one is competition for funding, which creates the need to publish in high impact factor journals and consequently leads to the fear of being scooped. And that’s a difficult one to work around. That’s the reason why I do not make everything we do in my research group openly available. However, looking at this from society’s perspective, everything should be made openly available, and as soon as possible for the sake of greater benefit to mankind. So balance needs to be found.

Do you think that some researchers might want to make their research open, but might not know how to do it, or might not have the appropriate skills to do it?

Definitely. Researchers need to know about the best ways of making their research open. I am currently trying to work out how to make my own project’s website more open and accessible to others and what are the best ways of achieving this. So yes, awareness of tools and awareness of resources available is necessary, as well as training about working reproducibly and openly. In my opinion, Cambridge has a responsibility to be transparent and open about its processes.

Role of peer-review in improving the quality of research

What frustrates you most about the current scholarly communication systems?

Some people get frustrated with the business model of some of the major publishers. I do not have a problem with it, although I do support the idea of pre-print services, such as bioRxiv. Some researchers get frustrated about long peer-review process. I am used to the fact that peer-review is long, and I accept it because I do not want fraudulent papers to be published. However, flawed peer review, such as biased peer-review or lack of rigorous peer review, is not acceptable and it is a problem.

So how to improve the peer-review process?

I think that peer-reviewers need to have greater awareness of the need for greater rigour. I was recently asked to peer review an article. The journal had dedicated guidance for peer reviewers. However, the guidance did not contain any information about suitability to undertake the peer-reviewing work. Peer-reviewer guidance documents need to address questions like: Do you really know what the paper is about? Do you know the discipline well enough? Are there any conflicts of interest? Would you have the time to properly peer-review the work? Peer-review needs to be done properly.

What do you think about the idea of journals employing professional peer-reviewers, who could be experts in their respective fields and could perform unbiased, high quality peer-review?

This sounds very reasonable, as long as professional peer-reviewers stay up to date with science. Though this would of course cost money!

I suppose publishers have enough money to pay for this. Have you heard of open peer-review and what do you think about it?

I think it is fine, but it might be subject to cronyism. I suspect that most people will be more likely to agree for their reviews to be made open as long as they make a recommendation for the paper to be accepted.

I recently reviewed a paper of a senior person and I rejected it. But if I made my review open, it would pose a risk to me – what if the author of the paper I rejected was the reviewer of my future grant application? Would they still assess my grant application objectively? What if people start reviewing each other’s papers and start treating peer-review as a mechanism to exchange favours?

The future of Open Research is in your hands

Who or what inspires you and makes you optimistic about the future of Open Research?

In Cambridge and at the Wellcome Trust there are many researchers who care about the quality of science. These researchers inspire me. These are very clever people, who work hard and make important discoveries.

I am also inspired by teamwork and collaboration. In Big Data and in human genetics in particular, people are working collectively. Human genetics and epidemiology are excellent examples of disciplines where 10-20 years ago studies were too small to allow researchers to make significant and reproducible conclusions. Nowadays, global collaboration and information exchange is possible, making the data really robust. As a result, human genetics is delivering really important observations.

To me, part of being open is to work in a team and be collaborative.

If you had a magic wand and if you could get one thing changed to get more people share and open up their research, what would it be?

Not sure… I suppose I am still looking for it! Maybe I will find one during the Open Research Pilot Project. Seriously speaking, I do not believe that a single thing could make a difference. It is the little things that matter. For example, on my side I am trying to make my own lab and institute more aware of reproducibility issues and ensure that I can make a difference in my own environment.

So as a Group Leader, how do you ensure that researchers in your own group are rigorous in their approach?

First, I really make them aware of the importance of reproducible research and of scientific rigour. I am also making a lot of effort to ensure that my colleagues are up to date with literature. I ask them if they read important literature and if they are unable to answer I ask them to do their homework. I am also imposing rigorous standards for experiments. In my lab people repeat the key experiments, or those which are particularly surprising, in a blind fashion. It takes a lot of time and extra resources, but it is important not to be too quick and to validate findings before making claims.

I am also ensuring that my people are motivated. For example, even though everyone helps each other in my group, all PhD students have direct access to me and we have regular discussions about their work. It is important that your group is of a manageable size; otherwise, as a group leader, you will not know all your people and you will not be able to have regular discussions about their work.

How do you identify people who care about reproducible research when making hiring decisions?

I ask all prospective applicants to make a short presentation about their previous work. During their presentation I ask them to tell me exactly what their research question was and how confident they were about their discovery. I am looking for evidence of rigorous methodology, but also for honesty and for people who are not overselling their findings.

In addition, I ask about their career goals. If they tell me that their career goal is to publish in Nature, or have two papers in Science, I count this against them. Instead, I favour applicants who are question-driven, who want to make progress in understanding how things work.

Role of funding bodies in promoting Open Research

Do you think that funders could play a role in promoting Open Research?

Funders could definitely contribute to this. The Wellcome Trust is a particularly notable example of a funding body keen on Open Research. The Trust is currently looking into the best ways to make Open Research the norm. Through various projects such as the Open Research Pilot, the Trust helps researchers like myself to learn best practice on reproducible research,and also to understand the benefits of sharing expertise to improve skills across the research community.

Do you think funder policies to mandate more openness could help?

Potentially. However, policies on Open Access to publications are easy to mandate and relatively easy to interpret and implement. It is much more difficult for Open Research. What does Open Research mean exactly? The right scope and definitions would be key. What should be made open? How? The Wellcome Trust is already doing a lot of work on making important research results available, and human genomic data in particular. But making your proteomic and genomic data publicly available is slightly different from ensuring that your experiments are rigorous and your results honest. So in my opinion, funders should emphasise the importance of research integrity and scientific rigour.

To close our discussion, what do you hope to achieve through your participation in the Open Research Pilot Project?

I want to improve my own lab’s transparency. I want to make sure that we are rigorous and that our research is reproducible. So I want to learn. At the same time I wish to contribute to increased research integrity in science overall.


Marta Teperek would like to thank SPARC EUROPE and Dr Joyce Heckman for interviewing her for the Open Data Champions programme – many of the questions asked by Marta in the interview with Dr David Savage originate from inspiring, open questions prepared by SPARC EUROPE.

Published 22 June 2017
Written by Dr Marta Teperek

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Open at scale: sharing images in the Open Research Pilot

Dr Ben Steventon is one of the participants in the Open Research Pilot. He is working with the Office of Scholarly Communication to make his research process more open and here reports on some of the major challenges he perceives at the beginning of the project.

The Steventon Group is a new group established last year which looks at embryonic development, in particular focusing on the zebrafish. To investigate problems in this area the group uses time-lapse imaging and tracks cells in 3D visualisations which presents many challenges when it comes to data sharing, which they hope to address through the Wellcome Trust Open Research Project. Whilst the difficulties that this group are facing are specific to a particular type of research, they highlight some common challenges across open research: sharing large files, dealing with proprietary software and joining up the different outputs of a group.

Sharing imaging data 

The data created by time-lapse imaging and cell tracking is frequently on a scale that presents a technical, as well as financial, challenge. The raw data consists of several terabytes of film which is then compressed for analysis into 500GB files. These compressed files are of a high enough quality that they can be used for analysis but they are still not small enough that they can be easily shared. In addition the group also generates spreadsheets of tracking data, which can be easily shared but are meaningless without the original imaging files and specific software to allow the two pieces of data to be connected. One solution which we are considering is the Image Data Resource, which is working to make imaging datasets in the life sciences, which have not previously been shareable due to their size, available to the scientific community to re-use.

Making it usable

The software used in this type of research is a major barrier to making the group’s work reproducible. The Imaris software the group uses costs thousands of pounds so anything shared in their proprietary formats are only accessible to an extremely small group of researchers at wealthier institutions, which is in direct opposition to the principles of Open Research. It is possible to use Fiji, an open source alternative, to recreate tracking with the imaging files and tracking spreadsheets; however, the data annotation originally performed in Imaris will be lost when the images are not saved in the proprietary formats.

An additional problem in such analyses is the sharing of protocols that detail the methodologies applied, from the preparation of the samples all the way through data generation and analysis. This is a common problem with standard peer-review journals that are often limited in the space available for the description of methods. The group are exploring new ways to communicate their research protocols and have created an article for the Journal of Visualised Experiments, but these are time consuming to create and so are not always possible. Open peer-review platforms potentially offer a solution to sharing detailed protocols in a more rapid manner, as do specialist platforms such as Wellcome Open Research and Protocols.io.

Increasing efficiency by increasing openness

Whilst the file size and proprietary software in this type of research presents some barriers to sharing, there are also opportunities through sharing to improve practice across the community. Currently there are several different software packages being used for visualisation and tracking. Therefore, sharing more imaging data would allow groups to try out different types of images on different tools and make better purchasing decisions with their grant money. Furthermore, there is a great frustration in this area that lots of people are working on different algorithms for different datasets, so greater sharing of these algorithms could reduce the amount of time wasted creating algorithms when it might be possible to adapt a pre-existing one.

Shifting models of scholarly communication

As we move towards a model of greater openness, research groups are facing a new difficulty in working out how best to present their myriad outputs. The Steventon group intends to publish data (in some form), protocols and a preprint at the same time as submitting their papers to a traditional journal. This will make their work more reproducible, and it also allows researchers who are interested in different aspects of their work to access the bits that interest them. These outputs will link to one another, through citations, but this relies on close reading of the different outputs and checking references. The Steventon group would like to make the links between the different aspects of their work more obvious and browsable, so the context is clear to anyone interest in the lab’s work. As the research of the group is so visual it would be appropriate to represent the different aspects of their work in a more appealing form than a list of links.
The Steventon lab is attempting to link and contextualise their work through their website, and it is possible to cross-reference resources in many repositories (including Cambridge’s Apollo), but they would like there to be a more sustainable solution. They work in areas with crossovers to other disciplines – some people may be interested in their methodologies, others the particular species they work on, and others still the particular developmental processes they are researching. There are opportunities here for openness to increase the discoverability of interdisciplinary research and we will be exploring this, as well as the issues around sharing images and proprietary software, as part of the Open Research Pilot.

Published 8 May 2017
Written by Rosie Higman and Dr Ben Steventon

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