In much of the world, the past ten years have seen a revolution in how we communicate science and research.
In Europe, each year brings a new policy, designed to open research and to promote open science. Many of these policies focus on open access publishing, and open data. We have made great efforts to increase public access to the results of research.
This move towards open science is probably the biggest change in the research system since the seventeenth century, when technological innovation enabled the first mass circulation newspapers, and scholars started to engage with some parts of the wider population, to discuss philosophy and natural phenomena in the coffee shops that were opening up throughout europe.
This first renaissance brought about a permanent change in the relationship between academic pursuit, between knowledge and enlightenment. Over the centuries that followed, the need for knowledge – and the ability to use it – grew, a class of intellectuals emerged from the bourgeoise.
As science became more professional and more complex, it required more money. Social upheaval in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, wars and revolutions, led research to become industrialised. Industrialization led to massive growth, and significant investment to place. Not only to build systems to conduct research, but also to communicate the results of research. And in many parts of the world, this investment was private, and required a business model that produced a return on that investment.
The investors in research required insights into the success of their funding: and birth of bibliometrics began to allow the first insights into the science of impact.
The size of the research business – is breath-taking.
The Dimensions database of research grants details 1.3 trillion dollars of historical and current funding. This funding produces between 3 and 4 million research articles every year.
Much of the money that funds research comes from government. It is public money, raised by taxation, distributed by government. In many countries, it is government that is pushing for open access publishing, attempting to transform the closed academic world.
But transforming the research environment from closed to open is much more than just taking away the barriers to accessing journals.
The political world has become increasingly “popularist”. Much of this has become possible because of the growth of social media. Political messages have become simpler, less thoughtful, and much less mediated by newspaper and television journalists. In the USA and the UK – and in many countries around the world – our political leaders have become resentful and suspicious of experts and intellectuals. They have shared this with the populations, they have benefitted from it in elections.
The challenge for academics in the time of popularism and openness is to embrace the new media, to be part of the new relationships that are emerging. To ensure that the results of billions of dollars research funding are not only accessible – if you know where to look, and what words to use, and how to read research – but are comprehensible, with ambitions that are related to the needs of society.
We have to build trust, we have to learn to listen, and to speak, in ways that enable the widest possible understanding of our work.
Openness is, as we say in Britain a “double-edged sword”. It can cut in either direction. We can use it for our strengths, to build relationships. But it can also be used to tell a story of elitism, and irrelevant research. For those of us involved in research – whether it is funding, or practical, or in publishing or analysis – we need to be careful about how we communicate our impact and our research ideals.
Cleverly calculated numbers and complex analysis may be understood by us experts, but fail to engage the public. We need to become skilled at using those numbers to tell simple narratives that clearly relate the need and the purpose of academic research.
The ways in which research finds its impact on broader society needs to be expanded and understood. Whether clinical trials, industrial patents, political policy; whether the results of our research change the classroom or the factory, the office or the government, we have a responsibility to reflect on our impact and what we can do to build trust between the widest society and those of us with the good fortune to work in research and teaching. We can use this evidence to create our histories, to explain our relationship with the pursuit of knowledge and enlightenment, public health and a better society. Those of us who work in altmetrics work to discover and understand evidence of communication and impact, and to support the common understanding of the meaning and interpretation of these new, complex sources of evidence.
Our explanations of success have to go beyond the exchange of thousands of lines of data, and try to go deeper into the meaning and relevance of data. To explain science on human terms.
Much is spoken of citizen science, and the possibilities that open science and more open societies can offer, but we have only started the process of developing a deeper engagement with the wider population. This stage, our future work is the most complex, the most challenging.
In computer software, we had no need for a revolution in openness. From its earliest days, programmers were collaborating and sharing code. It was a community endeavour. Applications such as Apache and Linux – the biggest, and most complex open systems in the world – were an evolution, and not a revolution.
But it wasn’t these efforts, the efforts of the computer scientists, that finally changed the way that the world engaged with technology. Instead, it was the work of people who focussed on usability, of user-need, of interface design – whose efforts addressed the accessibility of technology, rather than the technology itself. Nowadays, we increasingly understand that we have to spend a very large fraction of our budgets on supporting users to understand the possibilities of technology, and adapting to their needs and skills.
Those of us in academic life should learn the lessons of technology. Learning to communicate our values, our results; learning to understand the needs of society and our planet are not simple things to add to a project at the last minute. Rather, they are complex and expensive, and need to be integrated into the research process.
Funders are beginning to experiment with new ideas of increasing accessibility. Last month, I heard of the innovation of “citizen juries” – in this case medical patients, and families of patients – being asked to evaluate potential projects for need and immediacy. These programmes introduce a new layer of introspection to the funding process, and demand that the community spend more time on the context of their research endeavours.
Open access publication is the first, and not the last step, in meeting the challenges of a more democratic, open research community. Open science is the most exciting change in the relationship between the production of knowledge and the impact of research for four hundred years, and our work has only just started.