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Top-tier US universities push for open science

Presidents of 65 top-ranked institutions embark on joint quest to create shared research culture through tenure and promotion practices

US higher education is making another major push to promote a culture of sharing in research, with several dozen top institutions looking to jointly tie open science practices to their tenure and promotion decisions.

The effort is known as Helios, and its 65-plus inaugural members cover the highest ranks of US research universities. Their idea, after years of mixed progress on scientific sharing, is to devise new norms that can be embraced by institutions, funders and publishers.

The overall tactic will centre on enabling and modelling good behaviour rather than compelling it, said a lead coordinator, Greg Tananbaum, the founder and director of the Open Research Funders Group, a coalition of research-oriented philanthropic organisations.

“I don’t know that it’s a heavy hand,” Mr Tananbaum said of the strategy. “I think it’s clearer guidance and clearer incentives.”

Open science advocates have long been hoping for a world in which research projects in universities and beyond are routinely delivered in online formats that allow for data and outcomes to be freely and readily shared. Majorities of scientists, especially at younger ages, endorse the concept in theory. But actual implementation suffers for a range of reasons that include variations in tools and data formats, and fears of added scrutiny and lost credit.

Helios – the Higher Education Leadership Initiative for Open Scholarship – is a university-specific outgrowth of a National Academies project known as the Roundtable on Aligning Incentives for Open Science. Helios is co-chaired by the presidents of Johns Hopkins University, Arizona State University and Benedict College, with a list of fellow members dominated by the upper tier of US academia.

It grew from a realisation among National Academies experts that despite many advances, progress on open scholarship in the US would remain limited unless top US universities made a much greater and broad-based effort to demonstrate their belief in it, especially in the highly sensitive realm of assessing promotion and tenure.

Reflecting the need to move carefully on that, Mr Tananbaum – the liaison between the broader Roundtable and university-specific Helios – repeatedly emphasised the voluntary nature. “Our goal is to encourage each member to take steps that are right for their institution and their community,” he said.

The effort looks promising, said one prominent open science expert, Brian Nosek, professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and co-founder and director of the Center for Open Science. Hiring and promotion are key levers for changing research culture, and Helios appears important as a means of driving that progress across institutions, Professor Nosek said.

As part of that process, Professor Nosek continued, universities needed to take a hard look at their own internal culture and rewards systems, and test some of the ways that other institutions have been making improvements. “It is a very good starting point, because there are some innovations occurring that are worth sharing and spreading,” he said of Helios.

The university leaders participating in Helios, Mr Tananbaum said, were planning steps such as creating and improving the data repositories that can be used within and between institutions, and teaching undergraduate and postgraduate students skills that include preparing laboratory note-keeping methods that are open by design. For those who want to use such tools and training modules, he said, “they don’t need to be created 800 times by each individual school”.

Yet given US higher education’s modest record of past success, Mr Tananbaum declined to suggest how soon a culture of research sharing could be expected to emerge as a norm. “It’s a really good question,” he said.

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