The Center for Data Innovation spoke with Joseph McArthur, assistant director of the Right to Research Coalition, an international nonprofit devoted to increasing access to academic research. McArthur discussed the tools he has developed to help connect the public with valuable research and data, as well as the cultural barriers that make research and scientific data inaccessible.
Joshua New: You are the co-founder of the Open Access Button initiative, which promotes access to scientific research. Could you explain the initiative, and the challenges related to increasing the public’s access to scientific research in general?
Joseph McArthur: The Open Access Button is a student- and early career professional-run initiative that works to connect people to open research. The project has two apps: the Open Access Button and the Open Data Button. The apps allow users to find, request, and share both research papers and research data. Not everyone who needs access to research has it, which is why we started the Open Access Button. If you were diagnosed with an illness tomorrow, you likely wouldn’t be able to access the research around the illness. Many doctors don’t even have access. Nature conservationists seeking the latest ecological research, the incredibly bright student developing potentially life saving pancreatic cancer tests, and parents wanting to understand their child’s condition don’t have access to the research. Increasing the public’s access to scientific research is important, so everyone can make an informed decision, satisfy their curiosity, and innovate.
New: You also helped create the Open Data Button, which takes a similar approach as the Open Access Button but focusing on research data specifically. Why is this underlying data so important?
McArthur: Research should be verifiable and reproducible. That’s the way the scientific process was intended to work. By making the underlying data used in research accessible, the research outcomes can be verified, other researchers can build off the research, and we can speed up innovation. Additionally, studies have shown a citation advantage for authors who openly share their research data, so there’s a benefit for the original authors as well as other researchers and the public.
New: One of the main goals of these initiatives is to change the tendency for the those in the scientific community to restrict access to their work. How do these initiatives attempt to overcome this problem?
McArthur: Culture change in academia is difficult. There’s a way things have always been done, and many researchers are under the pressure of tenure. Getting research data off hard drives and making it reusable by the public is a huge challenge. With the Open Data Button we’re addressing this challenge head on by providing social pressure with publicly available request pages and rewarding authors who share their data with an Open Data Badge. Incentives are key with any cultural shift. A recent study found that after Open Data Badges were introduced to Psychological Science the number of authors reporting open data rose from 3 percent to 39 percent. Badges work!
With both the Open Access Button and Open Data Button we collect stories from users and ask them why they need access to the research. This can be a compelling reason to share research and authors may potentially find a new collaborator. We hope that hearing real stories and knowing that a specific person or group needs access to your article or data to continue their own research and contribute to science will help combat the cultural problems with sharing.
New: Why else are researchers restricting access to their research and data in the first place? What other challenges exist?
McArthur: Researchers aren’t restricting access to their articles, but publishers are. Typically an author is required to sign a copyright transfer or publishing agreement, which transfers their full copyright to the publisher. This severely limits what they are able to do with their research in the future. Publishers have the most power with these agreements and restrict access in order to make a profit. This made sense in the print age, but it’s nonsensical in the digital age. The system persists because of the “publish or perish” nature of academia and the perceived need to publish in prestigious, competitive titles. However, the majority of recently published articles could be archived in an Open Access repository, but the challenge is getting authors to be aware of Open Access repositories, understand their rights as an author, and get them to take the extra few minutes to deposit their research.
Data is an extra challenge. Some researchers have a fear of being scooped if they share their data, many lament the time required to prepare the data to be shared, and are concerned that their data may not be understood by another researcher. In some cases there are also good reasons why information shouldn’t be shared, or it can be hard to share some information in an ethical way.
New: Have the Open Access Button and Open Data Button been effective? What kind of impact have you seen?
McArthur: We’ve had thousands of people using the Open Access Button over the years, with many finding work they wouldn’t otherwise have been able to in repositories or saving time searching Google scholar. We’re proud of that and working hard to connect even more sources of papers to the system. Over the next year we’re investing immensely in deepening our connections to hundreds of repositories around the world to make sure that when you click the button, if the paper is available, we’ll find it for you. Alongside this, we’ve collect thousands of stories from around the world about why people need access to research.
It’s still early days with the Open Data Button, so it’s hard to tell. We had a fantastic response from the community and generated a lot of excitement. Now we’re working to turn that into new openly available datasets.