What is “Open Science”? Carlos Moedas gets it, do you?

I listened and watched (as best as possible from 20000 km in AU)  the EU OpenScience meeting inspired by the Dutch presidency.  I didn’t get all the presentations, but I got enough from the opening session that I could follow and make some tweets.  There was an opening by Commissioner Carlos Moedas, followed by a panel of 6 great-and-good, necessarily “balanced”. Some positive, some negative (like BusinessEurope, which interprets “Open” as public-private partnerships, and Haank from Springer who used Open as a reason to promote higher revenue for publishers – yes, you heard that right – Open will cost more and Springer wants to “do what the community wants”.)
But Moedas’s speech was compelling and heartfelt. I’d heard him speak on Cambridge a month ago on research funding. I wanted to ask him then about Open and ContentMining (Text and data mining, TDM) but it wasn’t the time.
Now he has answered much of what I wanted in his speech at EU2016NL. I’ll quote passages and then comment.
He started with the question that many are asking – what about Sci-Hub?:
Last week, The Washington Post published an article about Alexandra Elbakyan, a 27 year old student from Kazakhstan and Founder of Sci-Hub, an online database of nearly 50 million pirated academic journal articles. To some, she is “The Robin Hood of Science.” To others, she is a notorious cyber-criminal.
Elbakyan’s case raises many questions. To me the most important one is: is this a sign that academic journals will face the same fate as the music and media industries? If so – and there are strong parallels to be drawn − then scientific publishing is about to be transformed.

This is remarkable. Alexandra (who I haven’t met, or corresponded with, but would like to) is shunned by academia and publishers. She is “breaking the law” and therefore must by treated as a criminal. Possibly extradited and then tried as a cyber-terrorist as they wanted to do with Aaron Swartz.
But Alexandra is in a long tradition of civil disobedience. Our current Copyright law is bad. It’s bad for science. It’s bad for citizens. It’s bad for the health of the planet and of the human race. Not enough people stand up and denounce it. The arguments for reform are made, but they are smashed by the massive money being thrown at Brussels by the entrenched industry. Reform, if it comes at all, will be miniscule – “TDM by public interest research organizations doing non-commercial research” was one Commission proposal. Is that even me – one of the most prominent public practitioners?
I will write later about Sci-hub and Alexandra. Currently I want to change the law by legal means and political representation.  But…
So Moedas is the first person in authority I have seen raise Sci-hub. I haven’t seen any Vice-Chancellors, or Heads of Funders, or Research Organizations say anything positive.
Yet technically Sci-hub can do more for scientific knowledge than almost any other initiative. It’s conceptually simple – collect all the world’s scientific publications together and make the available to everyone.
That’s what the Open Access movement (or at least some of its founders) tried to do, and failed.
Failed because at best 15% of published science is “open” in some form. In fields such as engineering and materials it’s near zero. Failed because the means of discovery, access and re-use are either non-existent or left to commercial companies who are unregulated and by default non-transparent and therefore cannot be trusted to do what we want and how we want.
I predict that unless the Open Access movement actually creates a Sci-hub lookalike within 5 years, then it will either become irrelevant or will be a wrapper for commercial organisations who develop their own private infrastructure/s that we are forced to use, without trust or control. I fear the latter, because Universities show no signs of any real commitment to Open.
So what’s Open?
Open has worked in other fields, especially software.  Moedas continues:
In my view, there is a strong economic, scientific and moral case for embracing open science. Which brings me to my first point: why open science is a good thing and one of the 3 core priorities of my mandate.
I agree these are the fundamentals.  The economic case is very strong, but it is very badly presented by Open Access enthusiasts. Public investment in science gets a huge multiplier, IF properly re-used:
A recent study analysed the economic impact of opening-up research data. Using the example of the European Bioinformatics Institute of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory, the study demonstrated that the institute generates a benefit to users and their funders of around 1.3 billion euros per year − just by making scientific information freely available to the global life science community. This is equivalent to more than 20 times the direct operational cost of the institute!
A similar study showed an even higher multiplier for the Human genome project.
Academia generates wealth, but hides it, except to the chosen few within the ivory tower. I’d love to know of Universities (I hope there are some) who measured their value to citizens.
Then, there is the moral case for open access. I think the public have the right to see the results of the research they have invested in.
In short, open access makes complete sense. It generates income, raises excellence and integrity, and involves the public in what they pay for.  The question is rather how do we make the transition? Who pays and who benefits, and how do we do this together?
The great opportunity of the digital century is that anyone can technically take part. Most of the world is literate, most is computer-literate and those who aren’t are desperately trying to become so. It may take a few years, but we must have the vision that everyone, from primary school up is a digital citizen and a digital scientist
Because being a scientist is an attitude of mind, not lab coats or professorships. It includes

  • asking questions to which you don’t know the answer
  • Reading and analysing previous answers
  • Exposing your scientific activity to others – which can be a harsh but necessary exercise
  • Collaborating. Few individuals have “the right answer”
  • Challenging those you don’t agree with, and being prepared to have to accept that you may often “be wrong”
  • Where possible collecting data and doing experiments (although these may be necessarily regulated)
  • Talking with other scientists and frequently revising views
  • Telling the world what you (singly and together)  have done. Ideally as soon as you do it: “Open Notebook Science”

And when science is truly open then everyone can partake.
But when access to data, papers etc. is restricted in any way then there can be no Open.
And when minds are not fully Open, then actions are bureaucratic and formulaic:
“You should publish Open Access because you’ll get more citations”
“You have to publish Open Access if it’s to be counted for your career”
So when you think of Open, ask yourself questions like:

  • Does my Open Science mean Better Science? (as it should)
  • Am sharing with the world in all directions?
  • Is knowledge getting freely to those who can most use it?
  • Am I inclusive in who I work with?

Because this is Moedas’ vision. It follows in the tradition of Commissioner Neelie Kroes who was passionate in promoting the Digital agenda … especially to 12-year olds.
But not all commissioners share Carlos Moedas’ views.
So please support Open Science in Europe, by arguing for it, building the bridges to citizens and actually doing it.

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