Making open science a global reality

The UNESCO Recommendation on Open Science is an important advance. Putting it into practice must involve creative engagement with the scientific community, writes ISC President Peter Gluckman.

This post was originally shared by Frontiers Policy Labs in January 2022, and is cross-posted with their permission.

The shaping of the open science paradigm has largely been achieved through the work of national academies, international scientific unions and associations, and related bodies that are represented in the membership of the International Science Council (ISC). National and regional funders of science have increasingly supported the open science imperative by investing in supportive infrastructures and promoting open access publishing as a condition of funding. Now, UNESCO has taken a stance to formalize these trends at the international level through its Recommendation on Open Science. Despite the gaps in this document, it could have some important positive outcomes.

Primarily, UNESCO’s successful mobilisation of its national government members in support of open science principles is an important advance. This could be a step towards promoting a common understanding of open science, its key constituents, and the diverse paths to achieve it — promoting international cooperation. UNESCO’s Recommendation could also be a useful tool to push national governments toward developing and promoting policies that will enable open science. The stated aims, key objectives, and areas of action identified in the Recommendation found high resonance among ISC Members, along with members of All European Academies (ALLEA) and the World Federation of Engineering Organizations (WFEO), according to a joint survey carried out in December 2020. This is a good sign of convergence that could be used to mobilize collective work toward making open science a global reality.

Realization of the principles and proposed actions in UNESCO’s Recommendation will not only depend on intergovernmental collaboration but must also involve creative engagement with the scientific community — not through command and control but through the sensitive, interactive mechanisms that have evolved in national science systems over many years. As stated in the ISC intervention at the UNESCO General Council meeting just before the UNESCO Recommendation was approved:

“Science systems have a distinctive ecology that tends to involve three key players: governments that articulate overall priorities and set science budgets; arms-length funding councils that allocate resources; and researchers and their institutions. Such systems have proven flexible and creative in maximizing the return on society’s investment into research. These systems have two great strengths: they not only respond to immediate national priorities through focussed programmes, but they also expand the boundaries of knowledge and provide crucial investments in an unknowable future. Both aspects have been crucial in the scientific response to COVID-19. Such flexible, creative, collaborative, and proven systems are well placed to promote the evolved social contract that open science implies.”

Addressing key barriers and potential pitfalls to open science is an important next step, especially in situations where the science community needs to examine its functioning. For example, areas like evaluation of research and researchers (specifically the use of bibliometric indices, such as journal impact factors, as proxy metrics for the performance of researchers), issues related to peer review, copyright and indexing of published work need attention alongside the well-known issue of high costs for the reader and/or authors to publish and access scientific knowledge in the current system. The ISC identifies four main themes in the provision of open science: open access to the record of science; open access to scientific data and evidence; openness to and engagement with societal stakeholders; and access to the computational and communication tools of the digital revolution that are essential for societal participation (see the ISC discussion paper on Open Science for the 21st Century).

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Open Science for the 21st century

Openness is at the heart of the scientific endeavour. This draft working paper, which was developed in response to a UNESCO global consultation on open science, brings together work developed within the International Science Council’s (ISC) community on open science.

To make open science a reality, three key issues should be advanced globally as a priority at this point:

Reform of scientific publishing: An increasingly dysfunctional science publishing system undermines the scrutiny that is vital to maintaining scientific rigour. This system inhibits access to the record of science in ways that undermine global inclusion; it risks the loss of public trust; and it fails to rise to the challenges and opportunities of the digital revolution. Further, some major publishers are evolving into monopolistic technology companies with the potential to privatize access to knowledge. These are crucial issues facing the global establishment of the inclusive, open science that the world needs. At the ISC’s 2021 General Assembly, its members overwhelmingly resolved to seek reform, and agreed that governance of these issues should be accountable to the scientific community. The ISC is currently running a project on the future of scientific publishing, aiming to achieve agreement on a set of principles that will maximize the benefits of scientific research, for both the scientific community and wider audiences. The ISC is advocating adoption of these principles by the wider community of science producers, users, funders, and publishers.

Ensure that governance over the dissemination of scientific knowledge is accountable to the scientific community: As mentioned in the public statement by the ISC delegation to the UNESCO Special Committee meeting on Open Science, in May 2021, the UNESCO Recommendation and potential cascading interventions by Member States could develop along two divergent pathways. Member States could choose to enhance governmental support for the scientific community and the greater stakeholder ecosystem as they develop new policies, infrastructures, and collaboration strategies that serve the open science paradigm that has evolved over the last two decades. Alternatively, Member States could disregard the traditional methods by which the scientific community self-organizes to achieve its purposes, and could come to specify, or even regulate, how the scientific community should be organized. ISC is strongly in favour of the former and concerned about the latter, which could create a mode of open science that opens the door for commercial platforms to capture the value of publicly funded research.

Ensure equity in the evolving science system: Open science must be globally inclusive if it is to be globally effective. Equitable access to the record of science, by both authors and readers, is an international priority. It is essential that the international science community and its funders seek out and implement mechanisms by which inclusivity could be achieved, while bridging the existing divides between the Global North and South. International bodies like the ISC have a particular role to play here, given their diverse membership.

ISC Members Meet and Greet Peter Gluckman

ISC Members can join Peter Gluckman for two meet and greets this week via Zoom:

  • 26 January 2022, 08:00 am UTC
  • 27 January 2022, 17:00 UTC

At the beginning of his presidency, Peter Gluckman invites all representatives of ISC Members and affiliated bodies for a virtual “meet & greet”.

 Simultaneous interpretation from English to French, and from English to Spanish will be provided.

Register here.


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