Exploring an open future

This article first appeared in Connect volume 6 number 2 pages 14-15. Connect is designed for casual and sessional staff at Australian universities. If that sounds like you, check it out.

A bookshelf seen through a partially open doorway.
The new lightshade, by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

Two things happened recently that might, in the long run, make life easier for casual, sessional staff and early career academics. The San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA) was released and the International Council for Open Research and Open Education (ICORE) held its first meeting.

DORA addresses research quality metrics and calls for revision of the use of the Journal Impact Factor. It has strong support from senior academics and research institutes across the world. In Australia (where I write from) The Garvan Institute, the Institute for Molecular Bioscience, the Association of Australian Medical Research Institutes, the Bionics Institute, the Burnet Institute and the Victor Chang Institute are all signatories.

While many of the original signatories are medical researchers, DORA isn’t just for the medical research fraternity. The way that research quality metrics are used is an issue of concern to all researchers. DORA says that research assessment should look at the underlying research, not the metrics. The first Excellence of Research in Australia (ERA) exercise showed how journal rankings can be used to compare research across Australia. Once the government does that, universities usually extend the measure to departments, centres and individuals. That can have particularly serious consequences for part-time, sessional and new staff.

For a document written by very established researchers, the DORA (and accompanying press releases) mention “early-stage investigators” a lot. Even though the authors have built their careers around Journal Impact Factors, they understand that rigid use of metrics will make it very difficult for emerging researchers to get started.

In an article titled Journal impact factor ‘distorts science’, Professor Hugh McDermott (Bionics Institute) was quoted as saying:

younger researchers seem less hung up on being published in traditional journals and are more comfortable with seeking out specific audiences online via open access publications.

Which brings me to the International Council for Open Research and Open Education (ICORE). ICORE is the first group that is explicitly trying to integrate open research and open education. They talk about open publishing and open data, both of which are important to research and education.

In the world of journals, “open publishing” now means many things to many people. For me, open publishing is a no-brainer. It is based on the proposition that most of the work on journal articles (writing, reviewing, editing) is publicly funded (or not funded at all), so the public should have free and open access to the results. Open access publications have been gaining ground even though, as Professor McDermott points out, “these new journals often don’t have any impact factor at all.”

ICORE also champions open data. So does DORA, in that it calls for the data behind publication metrics to be open and transparent. Open data is a more recent development than open publications, but has quickly been adopted by national funding agencies. In their funding rules, the Australian Research Council (ARC) now says:

“The Final Report must outline how data arising from the Project have been made publicly accessible where appropriate.”

Just as all Australian universities have developed publication repositories, they are now building data repositories to store, curate, and make data available into the future. The Australian National Data Service (ANDS) is helping to create the tools, the standards and the techniques for storing, cataloguing and sharing this data. Margaret Henty has written a series of Research Whisperer articles that outline the arguments for open data

Open data allows for research data to be used in new ways. The Humanities Networked Infrastructure (HuNI) project, for example, will combine over twenty-five Australian cultural datasets. Researchers, educators and students will be able to understand relationships between such disparate data as the Australian Dictionary of Biography, the Circus Oz video archive and the Dictionary of Sydney, among others.

I believe that the open publications and open data will be particularly useful to part-time, sessional, casual and new academic staff. To see why, have a closer look at what Professor McDermott said:

  • “less hung up on being published in traditional journals”

This is a break from the old paradigm of publishing where your mentors have published. New publication avenues are particularly needed for cross-, multi-, and trans-disciplinary research.

  • “more comfortable with seeking out specific audiences online”

Social media can be a great leveller as researchers find niche audiences for their research. This might be through keeping up with your personal alumni cohort through Facebook, the development of a personal learning network, or new opportunities via crowd funding services like Pozible, Microryza or Rockethub.

  • “via open access publications [which] don’t have any impact factor at all”

For this to work, though, initiatives like DORA must create the space for the old measures to be refreshed or put aside so that new quality measures to emerge. Alternative metrics are needed and organisations must be willing to embrace them. Initiatives like ICORE can help us to find the best way to use these open opportunities, particularly in combining them with teaching practices.

I don’t believe that an open future will inevitably lead to a happy future. University academics are under more pressure than ever.

But initiatives like DORA and ICORE can help to open up new possibilities, particularly for part-time, sessional, casual, and early career academic staff.

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