Reflections from the Open Science Conference 2017

I spent the first part of this week at the Open Science Conference in Berlin. As with many conference, it was a great opportunity to step back and take a different view of things away from the frenetic everyday tasks. I met a lot of interesting people and came away with more questions and ideas than answers. One of the things on my mind, of course, was preprints and how they fit into the current view of open science.

The overall impression I came away with was that open science is at a stage where no-one is quite sure what it is, but they think it’s a good idea. Indeed, the first question of the feedback questionnaire asked for a definition of open science. At the same time, with the assumption that open science and its constituent elements are a good thing, no-one is making a clear case for this and there was little that would persuade sceptics.

For better or worse, the organisors majored on a few aspects of open science: open data was a strong theme, open education resources had a lot of air time and I attended a session on open peer review. My favourite session was the one on alternative metrics and showed that the discussion in this area is moving on to the identification of more useful metrics.

So how did preprints fare? Actually, not so well. Preprints feature in the open science monitor from the EU commission (https://ec.europa.eu/research/openscience/index.cfm?pg=home&section=monitor) and Niko Kriegskorte’s method of not reviewing unless a preprint exists was mentioned. There were also comments around the need to make research available as soon as possible and the usual gripes about slow publishers and citation metric addiction.

In conversations, also, there was general support for preprints but without a great deal of enthusiasm, and scepticism that new fields will take up preprinting on a regular basis just yet. I don’t have a good answer to why this is. Maybe preprints are simply not on the agenda. In Europe there are few advocates for preprints: just search for #preprint on Twitter and you will see that most of the activity takes place when America is online. Perhaps it is because most resources seem to be pointed at open data, which is a huge and important challenge.  It could also be that it is seen as an area that is established in some disciplines and growth will take care of itself.

Preprints seem to offer a relatively cheap and simple way of furthering the cause of open science. Estimates of putting a preprint online are in the range of 10 Euros (or USD) per paper, compared to 5000 US dollars for journal publications. Preprints also offer:

  • Rapid access to research, months or sometimes years in advance;
  • Transparency, with open review possible in a context where reviewers simply advise the authors without the judgment of an editorial decision looming in the background;
  • Papers that are free to read and often fully open access. This can help to circumvent paywalls and copy right transfer issues;
  • Putting control of reporting research into the hands of the researchers producing the work.

How can preprints start to sell themselves better, even within the conversation about open science? First, we need to make the case for the benefits of preprints and lower the barriers for participation as low as possible. Second, there needs to be better links to more established and discussed areas of open science, especially integration with data publishing. Those operating preprint platforms need to look at which standards and technologies can be integrated to link with other parts of the open science agenda.

I think the previous paragraph applies equally to how open science needs to embed itself into current research practice. To make open science and preprints the norm, there needs to be a convincing case that some extra effort brings tangible benefits. I’m hoping, at least, that at the next edition of the conference there will be a session dedicated to preprints.

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