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Teach students the mechanics of sharing research

“Teach students the mechanics of sharing research”
Dr Stephen Eglen
Name: Dr Stephen Eglen
Position: Reader in Computational Neuroscience
Expertise: Applied Mathematics
Institution: University of Cambridge
Country: UK
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An interview with Dr Stephen Eglen on 17 December 2015

Why the interest in Open Access (OA) and how did it evolve in practice?

Back in 2002, the Wellcome Trust gave us a talk when I was a postdoctoral researcher in the United States. One of the issues that came up was Open Access. I asked if it was a standard requirement and they were not sure at that stage, so I was already then pushing for making our work more accessible.

During my Ph.D., the culture in cognitive science was that we were publishing technical reports, which would eventually become papers. Sharing results so easily seemed the natural thing to do. We started with mailing lists and ftp sites; however, once the Internet took off, sharing papers via the web became a no-brainer. I therefore grew up with the idea of sharing resources.

“When you share the world view that research products should be shared, sharing papers is a given.”

I should also point out that I worked under Richard Stallman at MIT, who was one of the founding fathers of open source software. When you share the world view that research products should be shared, sharing papers is a given. Richard is one of the central reasons for sharing research outputs today, and I don’t mean just for research papers.

The big switch happened, however, when I went to one of the top three medical universities in the United States. Sharing anything ahead of publication seemed more unnatural there. Instead, the first priority was always to go for formal publication to prevent ideas from being stolen. The culture of sharing didn’t really exist there. I wouldn’t say it was frowned upon to share the work prior to publication, but it just wasn’t considered. Getting a paper in Nature or Science was a weekly occurrence. Scholars were routinely publishing in the best places, so sharing was not seen as priority. I went with the flow, as it was good to be there. However, when leading on papers, I still tried to make them Open Access. Nobody stopped me, and it was up to the PI.

What are the main challenges for more Open Access, in your opinion?

There are challenges on several levels. For some young researchers, for example, they fear that sharing will make them lose their competitive edge. In my opinion, the more we all share, the more we all benefit. I have yet to hear of anyone’s ideas being stolen through sharing Open Access; this is based on both my personal experience as well as by talking to people more broadly. Scholars get scooped for other reasons, but not because they have shared their data. We need lots of people to say: “I have tried it, and it was fine.”

There is unfortunately a very real fear that using pre-print servers will dilute the author’s impact. However, the proof is in the pudding: we need to see if any papers in BioRxiv have subsequently been published in Nature and, if so, spread the word.
Personally, I use pre-print servers like arXiv and BioRxiv. They allow people to comment on a pre-print version before you publish the final article. Some of the younger archives like BioRxiv have a long way to go to get the traction that arXiv has, where authors can expect to receive many comments within a week. I experienced this myself and found it rewarding.

“The journals set the rules on how we do our research, and this isn’t right.”

One of the other challenges is people’s resistance to listening. Many colleagues are happy with the current scholarly communications setup. The journals set the rules on how we do our research, and this isn’t right. I believe that journals are just in it for the ride and to maximize their profits. We need to convince senior researchers that this is important. Many think: “What is the problem? We can publish, so why should we worry?” This could be a generational issue and could change over the next ten years or so. However, it is a long time to wait.

In addition, the way Open Access is set up – or its business model – is somewhat unstable, to my mind. I don’t have a sense of how best to fund the system, and we are not discussing this enough. The UK’s RCUK block grant will one day run out and we are fortunate to have certain charities. However, what happens to those who want to publish OA and don’t have access to a grant? This is particularly concerning for people in non-scientific disciplines.

I think we have a long way to go in solving these problems and in coming up with sustainable solutions, unfortunately. However, by training young researchers, sharing more OA, engaging more with senior researchers, and challenging the business model, we can certainly make faster progress.


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

Tags: Bioarxiv, Open Access, PhD, accessibility, arxiv, benefits, business models, code, collaboration, competition, disciplinary differences, education, fear, ftp, good citizenship, ideas, impact, interaction, outreach, papers, postdoc, pre-prints, profits, progress, publishing grants, publishing process, quality, reports, reputation, research data, resistance, scholarly communication, scholarship, sharing, training, visibility

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