Tag Archives: Wellcome Trust

Sustaining open research resources – a funder perspective

This is the second in a series of three blog posts which set out the perspectives of researchers, funders and universities on support for open resources. The first was Open Resources, who should pay? In this post, David Carr from the Open Research team at the Wellcome Trust provides the view of a research funder on the challenges of developing and sustaining the key infrastructures needed to enable open research.

As a global research foundation, Wellcome is dedicated to ensuring that the outputs of the research we fund – including articles, data, software and materials – can be accessed and used in ways that maximise the benefits to health and society.  For many years, we have been a passionate advocate of open access to publications and data sharing.

I am part of a new team at Wellcome which is seeking to build upon the leadership role we have taken in enabling access to research outputs.  Our key priorities include:

  • developing novel platforms and tools to support researchers in sharing their research – such as the Wellcome Open Research publishing platform which we launched last year;
  • supporting pioneering projects, tools and experiments in open research, building on the Open Science Prize which with the NIH and Howard Hughes Medical Institute;
  • developing our policies and practices as a funder to support and incentivise open research.

We are delighted to be working with the Office of Scholarly Communication on the Open Research Pilot Project, where we will work with four Wellcome-funded research groups at Cambridge to support them in making their research outputs open.  The pilot will explore the opportunities and challenges, and how platforms such as Wellcome Open Research can facilitate output sharing.

Realising the long-term value of research outputs will depend critically upon developing the infrastructures to preserve, access, combine and re-use outputs for as long as their value persists.  At present, many disciplines lack recognised community repositories and, where they do exist, many cannot rely on stable long-term funding.  How are we as a funder thinking about this issue?

Meeting the costs of outputs sharing

In July 2017, Wellcome published a new policy on managing and sharing data, software and materials.  This replaced our long-standing policy on data management and sharing – extending our requirements for research data to also cover original software and materials (such as antibodies, cell lines and reagents).  Rather than ask for a data management plan, applicants are now asked to provide an outputs management plan setting out how they will maximise the value of their research outputs more broadly.

Wellcome commits to meet the costs of these plans as an integral part of the grant, and provides guidance on the costs that funding applicants should consider.  We recognise, however, that many research outputs will continue to have value long after the funding period comes to an end.  Further, while it not appropriate to make all research data open indefinitely, researchers are expected to retain data underlying publications for at least ten years (a requirement which was recently formalised in the UK Concordat on Open Research Data).  We must accept that preserving and making these outputs available into the future carries an ongoing cost.

Some disciplines have existing subject-area repositories which store, curate and provide access to data and other outputs on behalf of the communities they serve.  Our expectation, made more explicit in our new policy, is that researchers should deposit their outputs in these repositories wherever they exist.  If no recognised subject-area repository is available, we encourage researchers to consider using generalist repositories – such as Dryad, FigShare and Zenodo – or if not, to use institutional repositories.  Looking ahead, we may consider developing an orphan repository to house Wellcome-funded research data which has no other obvious home.

Recognising the key importance of this infrastructure, Wellcome provides significant grant funding to repositories, databases and other community resources.  As of July 2016, Wellcome had active grants totalling £80 million to support major data resources.  We have also invested many millions more in major cohort and longitudinal studies, such as UK Biobank and ALSPAC.  We provide such support through our Biomedical Resource and Technology Development scheme, and have provided additional major awards over the years to support key resources, such as PDB-Europe, Ensembl and the Open Microscopy Environment.

While our funding for these resources is not open-ended and subject to review, we have been conscious for some time that the reliance of key community resources on grant funding (typically of three to five years’ duration) can create significant challenges, hindering their ability to plan for the long-term and retain staff.  As we develop our work on Open Research, we are keen to explore ways in which we adapt our approach to help put key infrastructures on a more sustainable footing, but this is a far from straightforward challenge.

Gaining the perspectives of resource providers

In order to better understand the issues, we did some initial work earlier this year to canvas the views of those we support.  We conducted semi-structured interviews with leaders of 10 resources in receipt of Wellcome funding – six database and software resources, three cohort resources and one materials stock centre – to explore their current funding, long-term sustainability plans and thoughts on the wider funding and policy landscape.

We gathered a wealth of insights through these conversations, and several key themes emerged:

  • All of the resources were clear that they would continue to be dependent on support from Wellcome and/or other funders for the long-term.
  • While cohort studies (which provide managed access to data) can operate cost recovery models to transfer some of the cost of accessing data onto users, such models were not appropriate for data and software resources who commit to open and unrestricted access.
  • Several resources had additional revenue-generation routes – including collaborations with commercial entities– and these had delivered benefits in enhancing their resources.  However, the level of income was usually relatively modest in terms of the total cost of sustaining the resource. Commitments to openness could also limit the extent to which such arrangements were feasible.
  • Diversification of funding sources can give greater assurance and reduce reliance on single funders, but can bring an additional burden.  There was felt to be a need for better coordination between funders where they co-fund resources.  Europe PMC, which has 27 partner funders but is managed through a single grant is a model which could be considered.
  • Several of the resources were actively engaged in collaborations with other resources internationally that house related data – it was felt that funders could help further facilitate such partnerships.

We are considering how Wellcome might develop its funding approaches in light of these findings.  As an initial outcome, we plan to develop guidance for our funded researchers on key issues to consider in relation to sustainability.  We are already working actively with other funders to facilitate co-funding and make decisions as streamlined as possible, and wish to explore how we join forces in the future in developing our broader approaches for funding open resources.

Coordinating our efforts

There is growing recognition of the crucial need for funders and wider research community to work together develop and sustain research data infrastructure.  As the first blog in this series highlighted, the scientific enterprise is global and this is an issue which must be addressed international level.

In the life sciences, the ELIXIR and US BD2K initiatives have sought to develop coordinated approaches for supporting key resources and, more recently, the European Open Science Cloud initiative has developed a bold vision for a cloud-based infrastructure to store, share and re-use data across borders and disciplines.

Building on this momentum, the Human Frontiers Science Programme convened an international workshop last November to bring together data resources and major funders in the life sciences.  This resulted in a call for action (reported in Nature) to coordinate efforts to ensure long-term sustainability of key resources, whilst supporting resources in providing access at no charge to users.  The group proposed an international mechanism to prioritise core data resources of global importance, building on the work undertaken by ELIXIR to define criteria for such resources.  It was proposed national funders could potentially then contribute a set proportion of their overall funding (with initial proposals suggesting around 1.5 to 2 per cent) to support these core data resources.

Grasping the nettle

Public and charitable funders are acutely aware that many of the core repositories and resources needed to make research outputs discoverable and useable will continue to rely on our long-term funding support.  There is clear realisation that a reliance on traditional competitive grant funding is not the ideal route through which to support these key resources in a sustainable manner.

But no one yet has a perfect solution and no funder will take on this burden alone.  Aligning global funders and developing joint funding models of the type described above will be far from straightforward, but hopefully we can work towards a more coordinated international approach.  If we are to realise the incredible potential of open research, it’s a challenge we must address

Published 26 July 2017
Written by David Carr, Wellcome Trust (d.carr@wellcome.ac.uk)

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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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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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