Reflections from the Edinburgh Open Research Conference

Dr Mandy Wigdorowitz holds the position of Open Research Community Manager for Cambridge University Libraries where she is developing an open research community across Cambridge. She has a PhD in Theoretical and Applied Linguistics from the University of Cambridge and is a registered Research Psychologist with the Health Professions Council of South Africa. She also holds the position of Associate Editor for the Journal of Open Humanities Data.

The Edinburgh Open Research Conference 2023, offered by the University of Edinburgh Library Research Support Team and grassroots group Edinburgh ReproducibiliTea, provided a platform for the exchange of ideas and discussions about open research under the theme ‘Open Research as a Tool for Addressing Global Challenges’. Living up to its theme, the conference held numerous presentations focussing on the various ways in which open research practices can positively support efforts to address various challenges centring around open initiatives. The conference provided an opportunity for people from across the world to come together in a hybrid format to discuss how adopting the open research principles of open access, participation in research, transparency, and open data can ensure that the efforts of research are set up to help address global challenges, including in education, climate action, and global pandemics.

As a presenter and attendee, I reflect on the main take-homes from this event.  

With any conscientious and inclusive movement, clarification of terminology is important. The open research movement is no exception. Throughout the conference, many speakers acknowledged ‘open science’ as being an inclusive term, encompassing all areas of ‘openness’ or ‘open scholarship’, and one which extends beyond the ‘sciences’ to include all disciplines where knowledge synthesis and open research is considered. It was proposed that the phrase ‘open science’ is about intent and the larger goal of open research, and it should not be reduced to disciplines that fall under the ‘sciences’ umbrella per se. While the sentiment of this stance is reassuring and inclusive in intent, it is undeniable that there is weight behind the words we use. Instead, I would argue that it would be more inclusive to replace ‘science’ with ‘research’ when referring to the broad ‘open research’ movement. Doing so would safeguard against unintended misinterpretations about who may partake in and benefit from this movement.

A highlight from the conference was its celebration and acknowledgement of the growing impact of public engagement and citizen-led research. Case studies offered insight into how involving the public in data collection, analysis, and decision-making processes can enhance the relevance and societal impact of open research endeavours. For instance, UCL’s Institute for Global Prosperity aims to understand what prosperity means for people as informed by members of their respective communities. In addition, the Extreme Citizen Science: Analysis and Visualisation project employs the use of culturally appropriate geographical analyses and visualisation tools that can be used by varying communities with differing degrees of literacy to formulate research questions and collect relevant data. Attendees were encouraged to explore innovative ways of collaborating with non-academic communities to foster a culture of inclusivity, knowledge sharing, and insights that are driven from the communities under investigation, and to think about the value of smaller, local-scale projects in addition to large-scale projects.

Much attention was afforded to the dissemination avenues that prioritise FAIR principles (Findable, Accessible, Interoperable, and Reusable) and open practices, as well as who the contributors and accessors of such research outputs are. These efforts have largely been attributed to the increased availability of digital collections, the development of new data-intensive methods, increased pressure from funders, the requirement of data management plans for preservation purposes, the involvement and collaboration of research libraries, and the rollout of rights retention policies. Discussions centred around digital objects and data, including how these are produced, how and where they are openly and transparently shared, how they can be accessed and preserved, and what the potential of their reuse is. Such questions lead to the need for reputable sharing outlets that service people from all parts of the world and across all disciplines. Significant outlets that were mentioned included repositories, data dashboards, and data papers.

Data dashboards provide an overview of the various aspects associated with a research project, which allows for clear access to data insights when conducting large projects. An effective use of a data dashboard comes from DecodeME, the world’s largest study of ME/CFS (myalgic encephalomyelitis). Data papers are peer-reviewed publications that describe curated datasets. Data papers can be shared in traditional research journals as one subtype of article publication, or in data journals which are dedicated to the publication of data papers. This avenue of dissemination has been active in the STEM and Health disciplines, but it is being increasingly recognised and promoted within the Humanities and Social Sciences, largely driven by data journals in these areas, such as the Journal of Open Humanities Data. Overall, these discussions shed light on the challenges and potential solutions to ensure the quality and accessibility of open outputs derived from various research projects.

In addition to the many discussions about open software, which are ubiquitous in open research, open hardware was recognised as an emerging area in this arena. Open hardware can include, for instance, computing devices, scientific instrumentation, and remote sensing satellites that contribute to the conduction of research and discovery of knowledge. Typically, legal restrictions prohibit the investigation and modification of closed source hardware, resulting in a lack of reproducibility, duplication of effort, obsolescence, and financial burdens which ultimately reinforce global inequities. There have been recent efforts, however, to develop open-source hardware tools and devices to address global challenges particularly in under-resourced communities. Real-world case studies were presented that explore where and how open hardware has been used to address global challenges (e.g., in microscopy, space exploration, environmental monitoring) and make a difference in the lives of everyday people. The Gathering for Open Science Hardware was identified as a community whose mission is to promote open hardware and the practices ensuring its success. Open hardware presents an exciting opportunity for progress as its potential for solving global problems is far-reaching and scalable.

Education also emerged as key to the open research movement. The conference presented best practices in research data management and open educational resources for postgraduate students and educators from the perspective of a university lecturer. Training and mentoring programmes about open practices were mentioned, where people interested in applying open principles in their work and becoming ambassadors in their communities could sign up to Open Life Science to participate in an open research training course, and to Open Hardware Makers to support open hardware projects.

In sum, the Edinburgh Open Research Conference was successful in showcasing the advancement of open research with a focus on addressing global challenges. Open research is a fundamentally iterative process where we can all learn and build upon the accumulated work and knowledge that has been done before us. In this way, the event illustrated the remarkable progress that has been made in various domains and throughout the research lifecycle. By bringing together individuals from diverse backgrounds and contexts, this conference provided a platform for knowledge sharing and community-building at the forefront of open research.

You can find all the talks and slides from the conference here.

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