Leiden University has an active open science community. Open science means transparency in all phases of research by precisely documenting every step of the way and making this publicly available. ‘It’s time to be open,’ say psychologists Anna van ’t Veer and Zsuzsika Sjoerds. There is increasing awareness of the need for open science, or open scholarship as it is sometimes called, also at Leiden University.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that psychologists Van ’t Veer and Sjoerds are advocates of open science. Because theirs is one of the disciplines in which studies have been replicated in recent years but did not always produce the same results. How this could be has generally remained unanswered, since it was not possible to establish exactly how the researchers had achieved their results in the first place. The premise of open science is to make science more traceable.
Open science is a broad, overarching theme, the researchers explain. It ranges from being aware of human bias – unconscious prejudices or assumptions – to publishing in open access journals. But it is also very practical: a different mentality and working method that requires behaviour change. The brainwork often ends up more towards the start of the research process. This means precisely planning, explaining and documenting aspects such as the hypothesis, methodology, process and data analysis. This removes any flexibility that might prompt decisions that would lead to the desired (often positive) result.
Equally important is to keep a record of the ins and outs of the research, not only for your own benefit but also for others to reproduce and replicate the research. Van ‘t Veer: ‘The principle of transparency runs through the project from beginning to end.’
Sjoerds: ‘It’s also important to make the data and materials FAIR: Findable, Accessible, Interoperable and Reusable.’ This concept has gained wide recognition. ‘At the start of a project,’ Sjoerds continues, ‘it’s already covered in the Leiden data management plan, and at the end, if we make the work more accessible through an open access publication. Transparency is also making a preprint public before journal submission, and even the reviews.’
Learning from other disciplines
At the last count, around 700 people at 11 universities in the Netherlands were active in an open science community, which means our country is taking the lead. The open science community includes not only scientists and lecturers but also IT specialists, library staff and other support staff. They document scientific research, so have an important role in the scientific infrastructure, making them natural open science partners.
The open science community helps people learn from one another in the most efficient way possible. One discipline knows more about one aspect, whereas another discipline knows more about another. The community’s workshops are often very practical, covering, for instance, how exactly to describe everything precisely beforehand. That is a skill that you have to learn. Van ‘t Veer: ‘My first pre-registration probably wasn’t very good, but the point is that you learn by doing.’ Many disciplines, she adds, now face the challenge of learning the art of advance planning and making their choices transparent. ‘But I hear from colleagues that the first hurdle, working out how to do that, is the most challenging and once you’ve cracked that, it’s easy to get behind the new method of working. After all, research is about generating reliable knowledge for society. Some researchers are relieved even, because during the analysis they no longer have to think: if I tried something else, would that be significant?’
If this new working method is so important, why isn’t everyone doing it already? Sjoerds: ‘Scientists feel that it is a lot of work and that they don’t have time for it. What I always try to tell them is that they do a lot already. They record much in advance in ethics proposals and data management plans, and often publish open access. Making datasets available is on the rise as it is. And I tell them it’s about becoming more aware and restructuring your habits, and therefore often about baby steps.’
Van ‘t Veer: ‘Awareness and motivation are important. Checklists alone are not enough. That won’t achieve optimal science. Change takes time, and the departmental culture and leadership are very important too. But it will ultimately pay off in terms of quality, and later still, in terms of time. The science of the future will be more transparent, and therefore more open for correction. Recognition of this is also changing. Alongside the university’s open science programme, you can currently see this in the national Recognition and Rewards programme that is running in Leiden.’
The university now has an open science figurehead: Paul Wouters, dean of the Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences and keen supporter of open science. The Executive Board is also an advocate, and there is a workgroup with linking pins, including Van ’t Veer, the holders of the open science portfolio in the Strategic and Academic Affairs directorate at the Administration and Central Services department and Leiden University Libraries, and there is a sounding board with representatives from all the faculties. But will it be enforced? No, that’s not how it works at a university. It’s about facilitating, ensuring that it’s easier for everyone to take the necessary steps and to gently steer them in the right direction.
Van ‘t Veer: ‘Ultimately the increasing recognition that open science will be essential will one way or another result in legislation in the national or international arena. The good thing about the combination of bottom up and top down is that we can give shape to an open future together.’