Open Science needs more Science Communication
Open Science is the movement to make science accessible to all. 'All' also includes people outside of science. That is why Open Science needs science communication. For one, because we are not yet communicating enough about the process of science- how science works- let alone about how science is done according to Open Science principles. In addition, we just started to communicate about Open Science itself.
Do you know what Open Science is? And why we should care about Open Science?
All of this is important to consider when all science will be Open Science in 2030. At least, that is the vision in the Netherlands. To make this happen I’d argue that science communication needs to play a key role in all aspects of Open Science. Besides Open Science pillars such as ‘societal engagement and citizen science’ it’s also essential in not so obvious aspects like scientific publishing and data standards. In this blog, I will explain how we should integrate science communication into all four national strategic action lines for Open Science.
An Open Science vision for the future
“By 2030 scientific knowledge is freely available, accessible, and reusable for everyone. The scientific process and outputs are transparent to the benefit to both science and society,” are the opening words of the vision chapter of the Dutch National Program Open Science (NPOS) (Version 0.91 | 21 april 2022| p.9).
NPOS is a collaboration of Dutch stakeholders to accelerate the transition to Open Science and in 2021 it started an open consultation to create a vision document. On behalf of SciCom NL I have also provided input regarding the role of science communication in Open Science. In its revised vision document NPOS now defines different action lines (rolling agenda) to achieve its strategic goals. These action lines are I) towards ‘societal engagement and participation (citizen science)’, II) ‘inclusive and transparent scientific processes’, III) ‘open scientific (scholarly) communications’, and IV) ‘FAIR and open research output’.
Importantly, also in 2021, the UNESCO published a Recommendation on Open Science, in which it says that Open Science would "increase the societal impact of science."
In national and international policy documents we thus read that Open Science is both for science and society. But how exactly do people benefit from Open Science and how is society involved in Open Science developments?
Because I think these questions are important, I will now explore the answers by looking at all four NPOS action lines.
I) Towards ‘societal engagement and participation: if Open Science is for society, how does society get involved?
The first NPOS action line I want to discuss is called ‘Towards societal engagement and participation’. As mentioned in the NPOS vision chapter Open Science stands for more transparency. Transparency also means including diverse people in the research life cycle (design, run, analyze, and communicate studies). After all, we know that diversity can improve the quality of any study.
But how does one achieve that? If you open up data to a diverse audience that doesn’t understand how to analyze it properly, that audience may draw very different conclusions. How many people do you know who are comfortable with joining scientists in a critical discussion about choices of analysis methods?
One way is to bring lay people along in scientific research – step by step. This is Citizen Science. In Citizen Science lay people do scientific research together with researchers. Ideally as equal partners. Fortunately, Citizen Science is already an integral part of Open Science policies and represented in the NPOS line ‘towards societal engagement and participation’. However, not every project and every research project are suitable for lay people to participate in. And maybe not every scientist is looking forward including lay people in her or his research either.
What do we do with all these projects and research topics that will never participate in Citizen Science, when Open Science is the norm in 2030?
If we thrive for maximum transparency, we also need to communicate about these projects and research projects and - as much as we possibly can - involve diverse people in scientific and technological developments through dialogue. After all, research is funded by public money. But from my own experience doing scicom in multiple EU-funded projects, I can tell you that – as much as I wish we would engage in dialogue with patient experts, advocates and (end) users - the reality is different. Engagement costs a lot of time, trust, and budget. Foremost, it requires a mindset not all people have (yet).
The NPOS action line ‘towards societal engagement and participation’ includes Citizen Science, as mentioned before. However only a small fraction of research projects will be suitable for Citizen Science. That is why I think we do need the whole breadth of science communication too.
When I write ‘the whole breath of science communication’ I mean communication about science in the form of ‘simply’ sending information (dissemination), establishing dialogue (engagement), and doing research together (Citizen Science, participation). However, to be honest it’s not clear to me if this is in fact what is meant by ‘societal engagement and participation’. Once we do clarify these seemingly boring terminology issues, we can discuss how we can inform, involve and engage people in Open Science. And who exactly? Who are our stakeholders? And which goal do we have in mind? When do we know if we were successful? I don’t yet have any concrete answers for these questions yet, but I know that we need to find answers, particularly about our goal(s) and our targeted audiences.
So, if we assume that the whole breadth of science communication is, or should be, fully embedded in the NPOS line ‘towards societal engagement and participation’, is there also a need for science communication in the other lines?
During the national scicom day in October 2022 in the Hague, NL we asked participants if they see a role for scicom within these different ‘lines’. Surprisingly, most people suggested that, yes, all action lines have something to do with science communication. I don’t know the exact reasoning how people came to this conclusion, but I also think that science communication is important in all action lines. Let’s look at the ones we haven’t touched upon yet: ‘inclusive and transparent scientific processes’, ‘open scientific (scholarly) communications’, and ‘FAIR and open research output’.
II) Inclusive and transparent scientific processes: how inclusive and how transparent?
The second NPOS action line is ‘inclusive and transparent processes’. Its strategic goal is to achieve “inclusive, efficient, and transparent processes of scientific (co-)creation, evaluation, quality assurance and communication” (see the rolling agenda). By including more diverse perspectives into the team that does science (think team science) you probably also get higher quality science, for sure more inclusive science.
How can one include diverse perspectives and expertise in team science? This can be done by making the scientific community more diverse. Think about interdisciplinary projects where people with different scientific backgrounds work together. In this setting, collaborators need to speak the same language and need to value each other’s expertise (and recognize and reward different skills).
But you could also include lay people in the scientific process. These could be interested citizens, experience experts, advocates or potential (end)users. To efficiently bridge the gap between science and lay audiences somebody from the team should be an expert in science communication. The team could for instance hire an embedded science communication professional (read more at ‘embedded science communication professionals are the future’) who specialize in working with people who have with different levels of scientific literacy.
Imagine we have managed to form the most diverse team of people doing science. This includes scientists from different disciplines and backgrounds, as well as experts in different fields (including lived experiences). To work transparently, they need to communicate about what they do and why. So, they need to communicate about Open Science itself. I therefore see the communication about Open Science itself as part of this strategic action line.
In essence, to achieve ‘inclusive and transparent scientific processes’ we also need science communication.
III) Open scientific communications: beyond open access publishing
Often, open access of scientific (scholarly) articles is the first topic that comes to mind when you think of Open Science. Will everyone be able to read all scientific articles and all other scientific output in 2030? No more paywalls? That’s great news for those not working at an academic institute. I guess that includes most lay people.
First, let’s look at scientific information which is already freely available today. Pre-prints are a good example. Pre-prints are publications that have not yet gone through the scientific peer review process. They are uploaded online for everyone to look at and comment on in the hopes that this improves the study. Once the study is mature enough, it then gets published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. Or at least, that’s the idea.
I write that ‘anyone’ can comment, but obviously that’s mainly the scientific community. Within this community the advantages and disadvantages of pre-prints versus peer-reviewed articles are currently strongly debated (have a look at this though-provoking blog post about it). But outside of the scientific community, what do outsiders hear about this debate and what’s society’s take on it?
Since I’m focusing on science communication, I wonder about the advantages and disadvantages of pre-prints for people outside of science. During the COVID-19 pandemic, pre-prints were often featured in mainstream media. Often, even very early pre-print versions were referenced as if they were fully peer-reviewed studies. Those same media outlets hardly ever revisited the same articles later, once they got published or were revised by the scientific community. Is talking about the first versions of pre-prints useful for non-scientific readers? Can’t it also be confusing or undermining trust in science? After all, two worlds seem to collide here. The scientific one, slow paced, critically correcting each other’s work (“scientific process”) and the current media, including social media, which is fast paced, often superficial and favoring confrontations and sensations. Obviously, in my example, we were amid a global crisis. All information seemed important. Considering that we are in several crises today (just think about the climate crisis) and that we need scientific insights urgently, we should discuss how we want to treat open scientific information.
In any case, it will clearly not be enough to "dump" scientific information somewhere and say, "good luck with it”.
If everything ‘simply’ becomes open access, we will ‘simply’ have more access to (all kinds of) information - not better or useful information.
Pre-prints are one thing. But today, academic organizations and policy makers want to open up as much scientific output as possible. Besides results (studies) you could then also access the raw and analyzed data, code etc. But no matter what kind of scientific information we’re talking about - peer-reviewed studies, pre-print studies, data or code - I think that if this information should be useful for non-scientists we need to start creating ‘translation’ services and feedback opportunities, particularly (but not exclusively) for non-scientists. After all, what does a non-science-savvy person do with this information?
In the NPOS vision document for 2030 it says “Citizens are enabled to find and explore scientific output more easily, enabling them to gain knowledge and expertise that was previously only available for professional academics. There is support and training available for these societal interactions.” I guess support and training means education and science communication? I would also assume that we need to provide people with different layers of context and explanation, linked to the scientific output. Like a layered ‘scientific’ Wikipedia article - a communal effort written by scientific experts and lay people.
Besides the NPOS action line ‘Societal engagement and participation’ we need to think hard about how science communicators can help within the action line ‘Open scientific (scholarly) communications’. If the idea is that also non-scientists should be able to understand and use (in which way?) scientific output, we have a lot of homework to do. At the National Science Communication day, we asked participants how scicom can help with such a transition. Someone remarked that citizens might need more guidance about the now available scientific output but also scientists (from other disciplines) won’t necessarily know how to understand, judge and use such output. Different levels of ‘explanation’ and ‘putting output in context’ are thus essential before we can even think about ‘using’ such output.
IV) FAIR and open research output - more than data standards
If you go to Open Science conferences, there is a lot of talk about data standards. FAIR (findable, accessible, interoperable and reusable) data is a familiar concept if you are involved in Open Science. But if you are not, FAIR data seems like an abstract concept, that might not be relevant to your everyday life. So, is FAIR data (and software) only an important part of improving the quality of science or is there more to it? A good example where non-scientists do, or should, really care about FAIR data is when research uses sensitive patient data. Here, transparent agreements need to be made about the use, storage and applications of their data.
Discussions around FAIR data with patients are hard to find. Besides patients, I think we need to talk more about data practices with all kinds of people. Let’s look at FAIR data together. There are some great initiatives from which we could learn a thing or two. One example I know of are the FAIR data initiatives and meetings from the World Duchenne organization. Patient experts and advocates for Duchenne disease get together with researchers to talk about FAIR data. Duchenne muscular dystrophy is a rare, genetic condition that is characterized by progressive muscle damage and weakness. Considering that patients - especially rare disease patients, because there is so little data available - (should) care that their data is used carefully and as well as possible (including combining different datasets), we should see a lot more of these initiatives.
During the pandemic it should also have become increasingly clear to everyone that well-documented, easily accessible data (FAIR data) speeds up the development of new therapies. It would be a good idea to investigate how and when non-scientists benefit from FAIR data, what people expect from FAIR data and to include these conversations in our science communication.
Open Science needs more science communication: the way forward
At the national science communication day in October 2022 most people (including me) agreed that science communication is important or, in essence, is essentially the same as the NPOS action line ‘towards societal engagement and participation’. Participants also indicated that they think science communication should have a role in the other action lines too.
As outlined above, I also see an important role for science communication in all other action lines.
Unfortunately, the discussion about Open Science seems to be restricted to the scientific community and to policy makers so far. That is at first glance understandable because Open Science is not yet the standard. This means that the scientific community is busy figuring out how to get everyone within the scientific community on board. And because this discussion is now in full swing within the scientific community, it seems to me that anybody outside of this ‘bubble’ waits for ‘them’ to find a consensus and a way or working.
I think a wait-and-see-approach, however, will not enable Open Science to "increase the societal impact of science" (as defined by UNESCO Nov’2021). Everybody working together in research and development (team science: this includes science communicators) should reach out to people outside of research to talk about science done according to Open Science principles. And importantly also about Open Science itself.
And together with policy makers science communicators should also help to include (and define!) the full breadth of science communication in Open Science policy documents such as the strategic documents for NPOS. All of this will assist the scientific community to meaningfully inform people, to include them in dialogues and let them participate as equal partners in ongoing Open Science developments.
In the Netherlands, the Open Science and the science communication community now get substantial financial and policy support. Recently Hans de Jonge was appointed as the director of the national initiative Open Science (and the ‘kwartiermaker’) and Ionica Smeets and Alex Verkade are the two leads (‘kwartiermakers’) for the national center for science communication. Now seems to be a good time for these two communities to find each other. Maybe we should even embed the science communication ‘center’ into the Open Science network? That would definitely bring science communication closer to the Open Science developments.
I’d say that would be a win-win.
What do you think?
Icons for the four action lines remixed from the NPOS rolling agenda, available via openscience.nl.