Openness is Inclusivity

Anonymous Open
Apr 1, 2016 · 8 min read

Open science is a movement that intends to make research faster, transparent, reproducible, reusable, and thereby ultimately better. This movement is comprised of a network of stakeholders, including researchers, librarians, software engineers, publishers, administrators, funders, and government agencies. There is no center to this network, and advancing the open science movement is a collective effort with multiple individuals contributing different skills and ideas to achieve common goals.

The open science movement is in danger, however, because resources and attention are currently being concentrated on too few organizations and tools. This lack of diversity in support makes the open science network less stable. It is causing the community to become increasingly dispirited, resentful, and disengaged. This is a call to action for those individuals that are interested in supporting the entire network, therefore ensuring the long-term health of the movement.

One specific group that garners a large portion of the available funding for open science is the Center for Open Science (COS), and the service they run, the Open Science Framework (OSF). The Center for Open Science was established in 2013, and since then it has successfully brought attention to the issues around open science. They have stimulated energetic discussion, promoted an admirable vision for the future, and have very clearly articulated the goals of open science as a movement. On their homepage, they state that they “…foster the openness, integrity, and reproducibility of scientific research. COS is a non-profit technology company providing free and open services to increase inclusivity and transparency of research. COS supports shifting incentives and practices to align more closely with scientific values.”

COS has achieved an astounding and unprecedented level of success in the short time since they were founded. We recommend, however, that they advocate for more than their OSF platform, share the spotlight with other open science actors, and share the funding they have received to support more projects beyond OSF. We have three suggestions that would advance the open science movement in important and critical ways and would result in COS becoming a true champion for openness.

Recommendation 1: COS should advocate for more than one platform.

COS does not promote the use of any tool connecting to any generic platform. Instead, their calls for tool development focus on connecting those tools specifically to OSF. Although this may certainly result in the success of OSF, there is a real danger of having a destabilizing impact on the long-term viability of tools not connected to OSF. It also poses other problems: what happens if OSF is no longer supported? Or becomes closed source? Such issues have occurred in the past and are not out of the realm of possibility. One recent example is the Kuali software stack, which was originally funded by the Mellon Foundation to be an open solution for institutional software. In 2014 the organization became a for-profit entity and is no longer maintaining its mission of openness to benefit the broader community and their governance does not represent the community it intends to serve. This trajectory would be particularly problematic if OSF changed its model since the fate of many emerging tools depend on OSF as a result of initiatives that fund connection only to OSF. One example is the Open Data Button, which is currently only connected to the OSF thanks to a small grant from COS to build out the button. The Open Data Button is a fledgling project with the potential to bring awareness to open science to researchers that might not be otherwise inclined; its future is currently very dependent on the status of OSF. You can imagine as COS continues to support projects that connect to OSF, the number of tools that depend on it will continue to increase.

In fact, the large majority of projects, contests, news stories, and even the “Open Science Collaboration” are in some way integrated with OSF. A quick look at the COS GitHub page mentions several other open source projects to which developers can contribute, but these projects are not highly visible or strongly promoted on the COS website. It is not evident how many of these projects integrate solely with OSF based on their online descriptions.

The OSF website states that

“…the OSF integrates with the scientist’s daily workflow. The OSF helps document and archive study designs, materials, and data. The OSF facilitates sharing of materials and data within a laboratory or across laboratories. The OSF also facilitates transparency of laboratory research and provides a network design that details and credits individual contributions for all aspects of the research process.”

The OSF is not the only platform of its kind. Many workflow tools exist and have similar features, including Jupyter Notebooks, Taverna, Kepler, Pegasus, and even commercial websites like WordPress, GitHub, and Bitbucket. None of these perfectly replaces OSF, however these tools, used seamlessly in concert with others can enable the entire open science workflow. COS has not come out against other platforms. But as the most vocal and best-funded public ambassadors for open science, and given the name of their organization, this seems insufficient. They could practice a more expansive commitment to open science and advocate broadly for open science tools that will benefit the community as a whole.

OSF is, amongst many, a potentially useful solution for researchers interested in engaging in open science, but it should not be the only solution presented by an organization that is named for the general movement of open science. If COS were truly interested in fostering openness and a stable, strong network for conducting openness science, there would be no (unspoken) mandate to use OSF and more support for other platforms that offer similar services and would maintain diversity. It is important to note that this is not counter to how COS views their mission. In a 2014 article on opensource.com, COS developer Josh Carp said “One of [COS’] core principles in this mission for a more open science is the belief that “openness is inclusivity.”

Recommendation 2: COS should share the spotlight.

As the open science movement gains traction in the broader science community, there inevitably will be increased press coverage, more white papers, and growing attention from university administrators and others in positions of power. Often COS is the focus of, or at least featured in such conversations and press coverage. One only has to glance at the COS news page to see the extent of their reach. Certainly attention on open science is a good thing. However the focus of COS, and, therefore, OSF, means other tools, groups, and stakeholders are not getting a voice in these conversations. Again, the lack of diversity in platform support is concerning, and might lead those newly interested in open science to conclude falsely that COS and OSF are the only options available for participating in open science. This is less of an issue if COS supports all tools and platforms (Recommendation 1), and begins promoting the broader goals of open science and the open science community in a way that does not call out OSF specifically.

Decision-making and direction of progress is most often relegated to the loudest player — in this case, OSF. Association with COS and integration with OSF will become the marker of success, and have the potential to dictate the incentives, measures, and drivers of the movement’s overarching progress. COS is often offered up as the solution to any and all software needs related to the research life cycle, and those new to the movement will falsely conclude that there is no alternative to OSF. It is touted as the panacea for what ails science while in reality there are many potential options for improving the conditions of research.

Recommendation 3: COS should share the funding.

The amount of funding that has been provided to COS and OSF is quite impressive: $14.6 million over the last four years. COS has certainly made excellent use of these funds: they have awarded small grants to tool builders to connect with OSF, held numerous workshops and events at COS to promote connection with and development of OSF, and generally excelled at creating buzz around open science. What if, however, that money was given to something that promoted open science in general, rather than specifically in the context of OSF? If COS continues to receive funds at this level, it will benefit the broader community immensely if they began funding a wide range of projects. In fact, their current funding level is on par with the budgets of several of the foundations that provide funding in this space. If COS began promoting more diversity, they would undoubtedly make a huge impact on the community.

COS should consider expanding their focus to include any and all tools and platforms in the open science space. Continue to raise awareness about open science, but do so by being honest about the mission: if they only promote OSF, they are not being a true leader for the open science movement. As a “Center for the Open Science Framework,” COS is doing a stellar job. However they should not be the default, centralized source for open science information and knowledge. Further, they should be honest about their opinionated platform agenda in all calls for proposals, partnerships, and interviews.

What if COS doesn’t make a change?

If COS maintains their current course of promoting OSF, we propose that the community begin focusing support, attention, and development on the more informal Network of Open Science. We should foster a diverse network of individuals, organizations, tools, and resources that advance the goals of the open science movement. Multiple platforms, languages, and solutions should be considered, supported, and encouraged. Standard Internet protocols should be used. Funds should be distributed rather than consolidated, and ways to join the movement should be clearly articulated and promoted.

There are already those using the approach above. One example is the Open Science Prize, which was established by a collection of funders (NIH, Wellcome Trust) and institutions (HHMI) to “unleash the power of open content and data to advance biomedical research and its application for health benefit.” Compare this to the COS/OSF “Preregistration challenge”, in which scientists were offered $1 million in prizes to pre-register experiments via the OSF. If preregistration is a great idea, why not allow researchers to use any of the available platforms to do so?

In addition to encouraging support for the Network of Open Science, this post serves as a call to action for funders. They should strongly consider the need for diversity in the open science movement before contributing funds to existing organizations. Consider make risky bets on small experimental resources, and promoting interoperability over single, all-encompassing solutions for those tools they fund.

Finally we hope this serves as a call to action for intellectual contributors as well. These tool builders, software engineers, librarians, and others should seek out diverse solutions to open science problems, and consider the broad community of open science when developing materials, software, and resources.

As we noted in the beginning, there is no center to this network, and advancing the open science movement is a collective effort with multiple individuals contributing different skills and ideas to achieve common goals. As a community, we should be vigilant about safeguarding this vision. We should continually ask ourselves whether the software, tools, organizations, and individuals that we promote and use are aligned with our goals of openness, inclusivity, and improving the process of science for all.

On Authorship

Although openness is something the authors value, we are not comfortable putting our names on this piece. We recognize the irony of this choice, but believe it is necessary for a few reasons. First, we want this to spark a dialog about the open science movement rather than becoming a discussion about our motivations or interests in publishing this post. Second, we represent many different stakeholders across the open science community, and we are concerned that our organizations may be negatively impacted by the views represented here. This post reflects many conversations with members of the open science community. While we firmly believe that while the position we are voicing might cause disagreement within the open science community, it is an important discussion at a critical time in the open science movement.

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