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Open access policy: how Switzerland embraces change

What is the strategy pursued in Switzerland and Europe concerning Open Access and Open Data? We invited Anaëlle Foucault, Scientific Officer at the SNSF to give us a Swiss and European overview of the slow but steady transformation taking place in research.

What is open science?

Open Science is a movement to make scientific research and process more transparent, and the scientific resources broadly accessible to anyone. It is built on a sharing and collaborative philosophy, enabled by the modern digital technologies. It is a large umbrella term encompassing among others the well known “Open Access” (to publication) and “Open Data” practices, but also other movements such as Open Peer Review, Open educational resources, and citizen science which are all parts of the global Open Science movement.

What is the current trend in open data in Switzerland (SNSF) and the EU (European commission)?

At the European level, many funders developed open research data policies, requiring the outcome of research projects to be made publicly available. The European Commission is openly advocating for Open Science and elaborates measures to support it. Horizon 2020 grantees are required to write a Data Management Plan (DMP) – a document describing all aspects of the lifecycle of the data to be produced, collected or reused in the project including the plan to make it publicly available. Since 2017, all research data must be shared in a “FAIR” (Findable, Accessible, Inter-operable and Reusable) manner by default.

The SNSF requirements are similar in many points. Since October 2017, researchers applying for project funding at the SNSF must submit a DMP. The researchers are expected to share the data underlying their publications in public repositories latest at the time of publication. The policy is now expending to all funding instruments.

Of course, it is very important to recognize that not all data is good to share. For this reason, both organizations agree to the non-publication of the data in justified cases.

Why data sharing is important and how science as a whole benefits from wider sharing of research outputs?

The vision is that it will accelerate scientific discovery and deliver an innovation boost. Indeed, one aspect consists in the enabled re-use of the data. This will make research more rapid and cost efficient by avoiding unnecessary duplication of efforts. Research will reach more people and have a greater impact. It will trigger a more fluid collaborative culture and encourage to build bridges across fields. This will also sensibly stimulate economic growth – ideas will circulate faster, and innovative companies will be able to benefit from the available data. This will be a critical asset in the development of new technologies such as artificial intelligence.

The second aspect is the transparency that it brings over the scientific research process and results. Overall, this will improve the quality of the datasets – as it needs to be prepared and annotated in a way understandable to others. It will also discourage fraud – as the data supporting claims needs to be exposed. Looking with some distance, it may seem bizarre, with all the technological means available today, to make claims aimed at advancing science and on which others may base their work in articles published as pdf files and graphs provided as images. For these very same reasons, many highly regarded journals already ask to share the data underlying a paper before consideration for publication.

Do you think Open Access can lead to an increase in public understanding of research?

It is not the main motivation behind Open Access – which aims at making scholarly literature widely available to researchers in the first place. But indirectly, yes.

The scholarly literature will most likely remain written for an audience of professionals, and therefore not easy to understand for a lay audience. People with an existing background could use the available resource to deepen their knowledge. But most importantly, the plurality of science conveyors, such as scientific journalists, will get access to extensive, highest quality resources. This can affect what and how science is communicated to the public and will surely increase understanding.

Open Access will also increase the transparency of research. By providing direct access to the research outcomes, it gives the opportunity to have a look at “what really happens in the lab” and gain understanding of the scientific process and method. This will contribute to lowering the barrier between “the (professional) scientists” on one side, and “the public” on the other and will surely impact the perception of science by the society.

What are the main obstacles to better research data management and sharing? Any technical or intellectual reasons behind, if any?

There is no concrete obstacle to research data management and sharing today. Many researchers already fully adopted the open movement with success. But the research culture, traditionally closed, needs to shift focus and most importantly, the community needs to gain confidence in the movement. This takes time but some measures may facilitate the process.

First, education will play a crucial role. Many scientists, although inevitably performing data management in their labs to some degree, are quite unfamiliar with the concept, and therefore feel uncomfortable with it or overestimate the burden/benefit ratio. Skills in data management/stewardship/sharing and knowledge of best practices are to become crucial elements of the basic scientist’s toolbox in the near future. Such training should probably integrate every scientific curricula. For the researchers facing the challenge today, institutional libraries often propose valuable services and resources to help elaborate adapted data management strategies and fulfill funders’ requirements.

Then, the infrastructure, including data repositories and all satellite services, needs to develop further. Many institutions build their own services. Some global European initiatives have been launched and discussion are ongoing regarding coordination of the data infrastructure at the national level in Switzerland.

Finally, the different research communities also need to come together and define their specific standards and best practices.

There is no one-size-fits-all direction possible in terms of ”what data” needs to be shared or in “which format”, and this needs to be defined in a bottom-up approach. The process could be accelerated by actively gathering communities to discuss the topic. The SNSF finances the organization of such workshop initiatives via its “scientific exchange” scheme, any researcher can apply to.

How to develop further motivation (if needed)?

Open Science is only taking off. It is to be expected that very soon adoption of sharing practices will become an indicator of collaborativity, transparency and thus an indispensable ingredient to scientific excellence.

But the researchers need to be confident that they will be rewarded for their work, even if their data get re-used by others. Reflections are underway to find means to reward high quality Open Science contributions. This is a complex topic on which the European Commission is working, next to multiple initiatives to support the transition and movement.

Also, this is a thrilling period where things are getting together, benchmarks are drawn and many fundamental questions are discussed.

Jumping in the movement now gives a possibility to have an impact on the definition of the boundaries, that may become stiffer in a few years from now.

Researchers are interested in their tenure track career. Are there incentives for open data publication which support researcher career advancement?

By broadening access and enabling re-use, Open Access and data sharing increases a researcher’s visibility, citation rates and the impact of her/his work. These are already much of the important ingredients for a researcher’s career advancement.

Many institutions and funders worldwide, including the SNSF and Swiss higher education institutions, signed the San Fransisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA), by which they commit to consider all types of scientific output in the evaluation of researchers and not only publications. Published datasets are of course an important piece of this output.

Some institutions, such as the Charité University Hospital, Berlin, already put a strong emphasis on the topic in their faculty recruitments. Application forms may require a short assay on the “contribution to Open Science” of the applicant along with standard CV and scientific output lists. This will tend to generalize as the European commission is reflecting on ways to acknowledge Open Science activities in the European research career evaluation system and made it one of its policy priorities.

A track record of Open Science contributions takes time to acquire. Early adopters will clearly have a competitive advantage as institutions and funders fully embrace the movement.

Anaëlle Foucault-Dumas is a Scientific Officer at the SNSF. One of her mission is to support and facilitate the implementation of the SNSF Open Access and Open Research Data policies in the NCCRs. Anaëlle studied chemistry at the EPFL and obtained her PhD from the University of Zurich. She then carried out research in chemical biology in Oxford (UK) and Paris (France) for five years before coming back to Switzerland to work for the promotion and support of scientific research at the SNSF.


Cover picture: Open Flying Old Books image designed by Jannoon028 –

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