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What senior academics can do to support reproducible and open research: a short, three-step guide

Abstract

Increasingly, policies are being introduced to reward and recognise open research practices, while the adoption of such practices into research routines is being facilitated by many grassroots initiatives. However, despite this widespread endorsement and support, as well as various efforts led by early career researchers, open research is yet to be widely adopted. For open research to become the norm, initiatives should engage academics from all career stages, particularly senior academics (namely senior lecturers, readers, professors) given their routine involvement in determining the quality of research. Senior academics, however, face unique challenges in implementing policy changes and supporting grassroots initiatives. Given that—like all researchers—senior academics are motivated by self-interest, this paper lays out three feasible steps that senior academics can take to improve the quality and productivity of their research, that also serve to engender open research. These steps include changing (a) hiring criteria, (b) how scholarly outputs are credited, and (c) how we fund and publish in line with open research principles. The guidance we provide is accompanied by material for further reading.

Introduction

Increasing evidence shows that research in the biomedical and social sciences and research more broadly is difficult to replicate and/or reproduce [1,2,3,4,5]. One of the causes of this ‘replication crisis’ is thought to be misplaced incentives that can undermine research quality. For instance, publishers and funders generally give a selective advantage to novel or statistically significant results, thereby devaluing efforts to confirm published research [6, 7]. Further, employment evaluation criteria unduly focus on individual achievement, publication track records, and grant funding acquisition, which can hamper data sharing and collegiality while incentivising publishing in quantity at the cost to quality [8,9,10,11]. Many and varied changes in policies and procedures are seeking to realign incentives to reward transparent, accessible, and reproducible research [12,13,14], while grassroots initiatives are removing barriers to entry in learning and adopting best research practice [1, 15,16,17,18,19,20,21,22,23,24]. However, despite significant support, widespread adoption of open and reproducible research remains elusive [25,26,27,28]. Further, there is little attention paid to how the current research culture contributes to bullying, harassment, mental health, and the resulting rising tide of researchers leaving academia [29].

For open research to become the norm, further engagement and support must come from senior academics given their routine involvement in supervision, peer review, journal editing, hiring, and informing institutional policies. Senior academics are, however, presented with unique social and practical barriers. For example, setting higher quality standards for junior researchers can be negatively perceived as ‘ladder pulling’ [30], while the widely held perception that open research can stifle innovation or long-held academic freedoms can make researchers at all career stages hesitant to change current practices [27, 31,32,33]. Further, applying for grants [34,35,36] and teaching [37] occupy an increasing amount of work time, which means attending training, developing open research practices, or changing long-standing research routines can be costly and therefore deprioritized. Finally, the increasing literature on how to adopt open research is fast becoming overwhelming, contradictory, and mainly tailored to early career researchers [18, 23, 25, 26].

Therefore, we present a short guide highlighting three easy steps to introduce open research ideas and practices into existing research routines while avoiding the barriers mentioned above. These steps include (1) modifying hiring criteria, (2) crediting scholarly outputs with the contributorship model, and (3) securing grant funding and publishing in line with open research. Following the lead of similar initiatives, these steps are designed to appeal to the self-interests of researchers to motivate their engagement with open research practices [23, 38, 39], with a unique focus on the viewpoint of senior academics. This is supplemented by materials for further reading.

Main text

Step 1: Change how you hire

Evidence shows that open research practices confer a competitive advantage in publishing scholarly outputs and acquiring grant funding (see Table 1), meaning that individuals with open research expertise are a desirable asset in lab groups or departments. However, such individuals will likely be missed in hiring and promotion opportunities as a result of the undue weight given to evaluation metrics such as h-indices and journal impact factors [9, 40]. Further, as open research is rarely mentioned in job descriptions, sought-after candidates cannot easily identify potential employers that value open research. Therefore, we encourage senior academics (where possible) to modify their hiring criteria to incorporate open research practices  that support research quality and productivity.

Table 1 Open research practices and the career benefits they confer. Definitions are lifted from [43]

Modelled on a crowd-sourced initiative [41], one feasible approach is to modify desirable/essential person specification criteria to include a track record of one or more open research practices (e.g., open data, open materials/code, pre-registration, open access publication, publishing preprints, and/or open peer review; see Table 1 for definitions). Criteria should be stated clearly and publicly in advertised job descriptions and/or hiring policies, while decisions about which open research practices to include should be made in consultation with faculties/departments to avoid unnecessarily disadvantaging staff/students. For example, where a track record of open access publications is not expected (e.g., for a PhD student/postdoctoral researcher), proxies for productivity or keen engagement in open research can include preprints, open materials, or open peer review. Instructive examples of how this can be achieved can be found here [42] and in our Additional file 1: Table S1.

Step 2: Change authorship to contributorship

The main currency for career progression is authorship on scholarly outputs [11, 61, 62]. As a result, authorship disputes are widespread, leading to delays in submissions, conflicts among collaborators and journal editors [63,64,65], and/or retractions [66,67,68]. Such intense competition over credit for scholarly outputs has significantly disadvantaged those in more precarious positions (such as black and minority ethnic groups, individuals on fixed-term contracts, and women), with 40% of early-career researchers reporting that credit for their work was given to other academics or research staff [29, 69, 70]. As large collaborative projects become the norm, contributions will be more difficult to dissect and therefore authorship-related issues will become more common [71,72,73,74].

Issues with assigning credit for scholarly outputs are in part due to the lack of consensus-based and comprehensive standards. The commonly used standard, the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE; or the Vancouver guidelines), stipulates that authorship is contingent on substantive contributions (e.g., conceptual design, data collection, analysis, or interpretation, drafting and/or revising a manuscript) [75]. Still, ICMJE offers no adequate guidance on contentious issues, such as designating first, last, or corresponding authorship; assigning responsibility for the research; or dealing with large collaborations or other contributions (such as from librarians and statisticians) [76, 77]. These issues can be avoided with contributorship models of authorship, such as the Contributor Roles Taxonomy (CRediT), a consensus-based classification system that distinguishes 14 contributor roles (see Additional file 1: Table S2) that is now adopted in the submission process at leading publishers (e.g., Elsevier, PLoS, Wiley, and Springer) and hundreds of journals [78, 79].

CRediT documents individual contributions to a scholarly output in a standardised, accessible, and discoverable manner. This can be done at any stage in a research project, although the earlier the better to manage expectations of team members and to minimise future authorship issues. The web-based application, Tenzing, automates this process and produces a CRediT-compatible manuscript for publication [80]. Although the contributor roles are fixed, their definitions can be customised to a particular research discipline for clarity. Further, CRediT can provide a useful framework for deciding on authorship designation. For instance, the degree of contribution can be specified as ‘lead’, ‘equal’, or ‘supporting’, which can inform authorship order [71, 73]. Moreover, contributions to ‘data curation’, ‘project administration’, and ‘validation’ can instruct who should be the corresponding author. CRediT also offers unique opportunities to improve productivity, particularly in terms of fostering collaborations, by signalling the expertise of members of your research group, recognising individual contributions to large teams, and acknowledging roles which tend to be overlooked despite providing valuable insight or support (e.g., project administration). See Additional file 1: Table S3.

Step 3: Change how you fund and publish with open research

Funders and journals are beginning to advantage open research practices with novel initiatives and policy changes. Thus, to be in a position of strength, senior academics should engage with open research in seeking funding and publishing their research outputs.

Policy changes

Funders and journals widely endorse the practice of making sure that research data should be ‘as open as possible, as closed as necessary’, with new policies being introduced to further compliance with this practice [81]. Most funders now also require a data management plan (i.e., a detailed specification of how data or materials will be curated, shared, or used) as standard [82]. Data availability statements, indicating where data and materials are available or specifying reasons for exemptions from data-sharing, are also compulsory for submissions to a growing number of journals, including Science, Nature, and the BMJ [83,84,85]. Data can also be archived and shared through data journals (such as, [84,85,86,87,88,89,90]) or in third-party repositories (e.g., GitHub, Open Science Framework, and Zenodo), which allow control over how data and code are used and shared by assigning licences and DOIs [1, 49, 93] (See Additional file 1: Table S4).

Perhaps the most significant and less well-known policy changes concern preprints, which encourage the publication of scholarly outputs in a faster, more impactful, and more accessible manner. A preprint is a time-stamped, non-peer reviewed manuscript made freely and publicly accessible via an online server typically within 72-h of submission (e.g., PsyArXiv, LawArXiv). Thus, the significant time lag between manuscript submission and its publication (median days, 165) [94] and the infeasible journal open access fees [95] do not apply to preprints. Because of faster and wider dissemination, grantees are increasingly required to deposit preprints, particularly if funded research is of significant public health benefit (e.g., Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation) [96]. Further, a majority of journals permit preprints to be shared before or during manuscript submission [97] (Additional file 1: Table S4), presumably due to evidence that journal articles linked to preprints have higher citation rates [53, 55]. Influential journals (e.g., BMJ, The Lancet) and funders (e.g., The National Institutes of Health, Wellcome Trust) are now explicitly stating that preprints can be cited [98, 99]. Preprints can additionally be referenced in researcher track records when applying for funding [96] and included in submissions to the UK Government funding organisation, the Research Excellence Framework [98].

Funding opportunities

The move from funders to investing in open research is set to gather pace, particularly following the invaluable role open research played in the COVID-19 pandemic [100]. However, identifying and keeping track of open research funding opportunities is challenging. We therefore provided key examples of funding opportunities supporting open research in Table 2 and additionally curated a list of funding opportunities obtained by using data scraping, available at https://lorenzada.github.io/openresearch_funding/. In this list, we selected funding opportunities mentioning keywords related to open research (e.g., replication study, reproducible code, preprint), after data scraping was performed from the NIH and UKRI funding websites. Of note, website selection for data scraping was based on whether automated data collection was permitted for a given website. For further information, please refer to the open code at https://github.com/LorenzaDA/openresearch_funding. This list not only illustrates the mounting financial commitment to open research practices and projects from grant funders, but will hopefully encourage senior academics to apply for funding or for them to support applications from early career researchers in their research team.

Table 2 Examples of funding opportunities supporting or rewarding open research, with accompanying text lifted directly from funders’ websites

Outlook

‘We create our culture, invisible though it may be, and we therefore have it collectively within ourselves to change our culture for the better’ ([118], p. 92).

Academic researchers typically aim to reach the highest standards of best research practice, but are hampered by perverse incentives and cultural norms. However, senior academics in particular face additional, unique challenges–especially in terms of prohibitive workloads–that prevent them from supporting or practising open research even though they might view open research as necessary or worthwhile. This is a problem. The success of policies and grassroots initiatives aiming to  normalise open research relies on the collective action of researchers, but only when open research is practised routinely by those in positions of seniority can a positive change in research culture and quality take effect. In this context, we sought to lower barriers of entry into open research for senior academics, and to highlight that open research is advantageous for research grant capture, productivity, and integrity. More remains to be done, but our short, easy-to-follow, three-step guide will hopefully mark the first steps into a wider adoption of open research for many senior academics.

Availability of data and materials

Not applicable.

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Acknowledgements

The author would like to thank those who provided helpful feedback on earlier versions of this manuscript, which include Marion Criaud and Sheut-Ling Lam.

Funding

OSK is supported by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Biomedical Research Centre at South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust and King’s College London. AL is supported by the UK Medical Research Council (MR/N013700) and King’s College London member of the MRC Doctoral Training Partnership in Biomedical Sciences. EB is supported by the Sophia Children’s Hospital Research Foundation (SSWO) Project #S18-68 and #S20-48. LD’A is supported by the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO-ZonMW: 016.VICI.170.200). SJW is supported by the Action Medical Research (GN2426), Garfield Weston Foundation, National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Biomedical Research Centre at South London and the Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust, and King’s College London. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and interpretation, or the decision to submit the work for publication. The views expressed are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the NIHR or the Department of Health and Social Care.

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All authors contributed equally to this paper, hence all authors share co-first authorship, with SJW as senior author since he led the project and writing. Authorship order was randomly allocated to all authors by SJW. Each author made substantial contributions to the conception of the work, has drafted the work, and substantively revised it. All authors have approved the submitted version (and any substantially modified version), have agreed both to be personally accountable for the author's own contributions and to ensure that questions related to the accuracy or integrity of any part of the work, even ones in which the author was not personally involved, are appropriately investigated, resolved, and the resolution documented in the literature. Conceptualization: OSK, AL, EB, LDA and SJW. Data Curation: LDA. Project Administration: SJW. Resources: AL and LDA. Supervision: SJW. Visualization: OSK, AL, EB, LDA and SJW. Writing—original Draft Preparation: OSK, AL, EB, LDA and SJW. Writing—review and editing: OSK, AL, EB, LDA and SJW. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.

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Correspondence to Samuel J. Westwood.

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Additional file 1

: Table S1. Examples of open science practices in university policies for hiring and promotion. Table S2. The CRediT Taxonomy of Roles (adapted from 71 in main text). Table S3 Prospective benefits of CRediT (adapted from 71 in main text). Table S4 List of useful online resources to track funding and journal policies regarding open access, preprints, and open data/materials.

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Kowalczyk, O.S., Lautarescu, A., Blok, E. et al. What senior academics can do to support reproducible and open research: a short, three-step guide. BMC Res Notes 15, 116 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1186/s13104-022-05999-0

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Keywords

  • Reproducibility
  • Replication
  • Authorship
  • Funding
  • Publishing
  • Reform