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I hope that the publishing industry becomes an enabler of open

“I hope that the publishing industry becomes an enabler of open”
Name: Dr Jenny Molloy
Position: Co-ordinator of the Synthetic Biology SRI & OpenPlant and manager of ContentMine
Expertise: Biology and Life Sciences
Institution: University of Cambridge
Country: UK
More info: LinkedIn Twitter Blog

An interview with Dr Jenny Molloy on 7 December 2015

How did you get started with Open Access (OA)?

I became interested in open source software at school whilst studying science and technology subjects and hanging out with computer geeks. When I came to Cambridge as an undergraduate, I volunteered with a student magazine called The Triple Helix focusing on issues around science, society and law, which was a great excuse to pursue this interest.

In 2008 I organised an event on everything ‘open’, including open data and open government. I invited people from Cambridge – including Peter Murray-Rust (blog), then a Reader in Chemistry. Peter introduced me to Rufus Pollock, founder of the Open Knowledge Foundation (now Open Knowledge), and to others who together became founder members of the Open Science Working Group. I felt strongly that this was an interesting group of people who wanted to make science better and volunteered as the Working Group Co-ordinator for several years.

I went across to Oxford to complete a DPhil in the genetic control of mosquito populations between 2010 and 2014. I remained an active member of the Open Knowledge community and organised open science related events in Oxford. I’m now back at Cambridge as a project manager in the Department of Plant Sciences, which is described as an ‘academic-related’ role. Although I’m not doing ‘proper’ research in the lab, the projects I co-ordinate have strong links to research policies and scientific working practices, with an emphasis on open technologies. One is even called OpenPlant!

Where did your interest in Open Access originate?

Aside from believing that if the public has paid for research they should be able to read it, my interest in OA is in its potential to create a stronger and more diverse research community by increasing access to knowledge and how that will affect science and innovation. I’m interested in the economics of OA, but I’m more interested in how it affects people’s research and the evolution of scholarly communication. The extension of OA to open science was what got me really interested. In my opinion, papers are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of research outputs, which could be freely shared. I have spent a lot of time thinking about and promoting open data but more recently I’ve been interested in how to share software biological materials and designs for scientific equipment more freely. I think that opening up the tools and technologies required to perform research is of great value. Open Science for me is also broader than OA in that it covers not just providing access to the final output, but also developing open working practices that foster collaboration. I believe this will lead to better science but I’m interested in establishing in what context that is true and who the beneficiaries will be.

How are you currently involved in Open Access?

I’m involved in several projects that make use of OA materials. ContentMine is using OA literature and open source software for text and data mining and also aims to liberate facts from closed access papers as open data. Without access to the literature and re-use rights, it is impossible to use modern digital methods like that. We are committed to making products such as tools, resources, services and content that are fully open – that’s locked into our mission statement.

Through OpenPlant and the Synthetic Biology Strategic Research Initiative (SRI) I promote and assist researchers to publish their work OA. I co-ordinate two synthetic biology seed funding schemes which specify OA for all research outputs as a condition of funding.

“Essentially everything I do now has an OA component!”

Essentially everything I do now has an OA component! I see much of my job as enabling people to go OA or do science in an open way, rather than doing specific advocacy work at a political level. I work with researchers at all levels of research, from community-related activities involving mainly early career researchers through to PIs.

“I will avoid work environments that don’t share those (open) values in the future.”

I try to publish everything I do OA and it was helpful that my DPhil supervisor had to do so due to Wellcome Trust funding policies. However, the lab research environment was very closed and that was a difficult situation coming from the Open Knowledge community as I felt there was a mismatch in approach and values. I wasn’t able to influence that at the time and now I know that community and collaboration is very important to me. I will avoid work environments that don’t share those values in the future. All of my current projects promote greater openness but making changes like this unfortunately requires a lot of time and effort from individual researchers and communities.

What are the challenges?

First of all, I have never met anyone who thinks Open Access is a bad idea full stop. Nor have I ever encountered anyone who is against OA for ideological reasons. However, I hear many questions about finances, and the various costs and benefits of OA.

“We are ultimately talking about a reallocation of costs.”

These are challenging to address, in part because OA is still an experiment in the larger scheme of scholarly publishing. Also, we are ultimately talking about a reallocation of costs but many of those costs are invisible to different stakeholders and the end users are often disconnected from the process, so it’s hard to conceptualise and explain the economics of OA publishing versus subscription or other models.

“What is missing is talking enough about the practicalities of doing it.”

There is unfortunately not much reflective discussion about Open Access. Many people advocate and explain why we should take the OA path – myself included. However, what is missing is talking enough about the practicalities of doing it, and then how to deal with the many severe implementation challenges we are currently facing. Examples include very high author processing charges in many journals, the strong connection impact factor creates between publication venue and research assessment and any bureaucratic processes at an institutional level that pose a barrier to publishing OA.

What I hear from many people is that they are just not sure what they can and can’t do. For early career researchers, they are often concerned about the perception of the journal and its impact factor – all made more complex by which policies they need to adhere to and how. Such worries sometimes overtake, so they cannot see the immediate benefit of OA to them. The more we can get people talking about how OA concretely improves the researcher’s prospects, the better.

A further challenge is that it takes a lot of time to adopt open practices. If you are just following OA mandates, some additional time is needed for deposit in an Institutional Repository. However, this generally follows the publication workflow. Working out an open workflow and making as much of what you are doing open is more time-intensive, on the other hand. Labs have had to build such activities into the job flow – meaning that people do less research or science as they need time to blog and communicate with others. One can argue that research projects can be much more productive through such collaboration. However, it does depend on the context as to whether this is a worthwhile endeavour or not. For some projects, external input is not clearly necessary, although collaboration can of course take you away from going down a blind alley. I am currently working out what is worth sharing from my workflows.

Does Open Access have a role to play in research careers?

I know several people who have found new jobs or collaborators by being open. I don’t see that it harms your career, but there will always be an outlier somewhere! Being ‘open’ has to be positive because those interested in your career can see what you do. The overemphasis of the impact factor and where you publish does indeed impact people who are starting their career. However, people are currently weighing up the benefits of networking and Open Access outreach against the faceless nature of the boards. How people get promoted is also very dependent on the discipline.

What still needs to be done for more OA? What are the next steps?

It is difficult to see what has been effective so far across all kinds of disciplinary environments. Although much is being done on how to make things open, more progress is needed on creating incentives and emphasising benefits of OA. There is no other way around it but to have clear incentives for researchers to invest the additional effort required and innovate in scholarly communication, which many view as a separate issue from their core business of research. It’s all about explaining how OA is useful to science and society (with evidence) and how changing to an open framework will create a personal benefit. We need to make sure that the act of being open is not prejudicing people and their future opportunities.

In my opinion, more needs to be done earlier in people’s training and research careers. I don’t see people coming through the system being taught about their choices as a graduate or undergraduate. Once you enter a particular research environment, you are often shaped by or at the very least work within the constraints of its culture and norms, which could be positive or negative in terms of OA.

“People who have successful research positions and promote open are very helpful.”

We can’t do anything about people who are never going to get on board. It’s best to just start with people who are actually doing something at the grass-roots level. We need to provide them with more information early on, at meetings or at general science conferences. People who have successful research positions and promote open are very helpful here.

“We would also wipe the slate clean and erase all the out-dated business models.”

Ideally, we would also wipe the slate clean and erase all the out-dated business models for academic publishing that are no longer suitable for communicating and consuming modern research in a digital age. This would mean persuading those whose business it is to keep such businesses afloat to employ a new way of operating. I hope that the publishing industry becomes a real enabler of open and Open Access but there is still a long way to go.

Policy-wise, in my opinion, we do need OA mandates from funders and governments to encourage more people to open up, but there’s also a strong grass roots effort. In combination I hope they’ll demonstrate in time that there are tangible benefits to science and society from increased access to knowledge through OA.

All in all, high-level political support for science for the public good, researcher buy-in and support from a publishing industry that innovates and serves science by disseminating rather than enclosing knowledge are all necessary to make the progress we need towards OA.


Copyright: Danny Kingsley, Cambridge University. Creative Commons CC-BY Licence.

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