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Opening up research

James Rowe

James Rowe (Image copyright: James Rowe)

MRC-funded research into how the brain processes music was the topic of the winning entry to the Europe PubMed Central ‘Access to Understanding’ science writing competition, announced in March. Here Dr James Rowe from the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit tells us about the research, what it means to him, and why he made sure it was published on an open access basis.

I was delighted when I learned that Elizabeth Kirkham had chosen to write about our article in the EuropePMC writing competition, and even more so when it won. This paper was special to me for lots of reasons, over and above its scientific merit.

First, it represented an unexpected but highly productive and enjoyable collaboration with Dr Jessica Grahn, linking my work at the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit and the University of Cambridge Department of Clinical Neurosciences. Such innovative studies are greatly helped by core funding to the unit from the MRC, which encourages creative dialogue between scientists.  

In this case, my interests in Parkinson’s disease and motor control resonated with Dr Grahn’s new approach to the neuroscience of music. Although these lines of research are usually quite separate, we discovered that we shared ideas and had developed common research tools that could be brought together for the first time.

Second, the appreciation of music and rhythms is universal across human cultures, making its neurobiology of special interest, on a par with language and complex social cognition, which are much more widely studied. The neurobiology of music goes beyond aesthetic or artistic factors, and tells us how the brain tries to make sense of the world, its patterns and structures. Our paper looks at these deeper issues, distinguishing between the pattern of brain activity when finding a rhythm and once the rhythm is identified.

This paper also included a replication of a high profile result from an earlier study (Grahn and Rowe, Journal of Neuroscience, 2009). Replication is vital for good science, and for trustworthy results. But it’s not sexy, and is too often dismissed as derivative or lacking originality. It is difficult to fund replication studies, so we slipped in the replication as part of the new study, and were pleased (and relieved) that our previous findings held up.

Finally, it is part of a series of studies looking at rhythm, music and their potential for the treatment of Parkinson’s disease. Although this paper looked at healthy adults, the areas that were activated in searching for the rhythm were the same areas that are implicated most strongly in Parkinson’s disease. This links with anecdotes from some patients that music and dance can help their symptoms. Dr Grahn and I are interested in how this might work, and whether it could become a new form of therapy, in addition to medication. This is an exciting area to bring together basic and clinical brain research.

The article was published on an open access basis, which is a condition of both our MRC and Wellcome Trust funding, the two organisations that supported the work. Open access publishing makes it much easier for people around the world to access advances in science, whether they are researchers, students, teachers, journalists, patients or other members of the public.

The current structures for open access publishing are not cheap and have been criticised by some, but it is a fraction of the overall cost of the research. The advantage is that it can greatly enhance the dissemination of discoveries and new ideas, creating a more responsive and inclusive research environment.

I believe that open access should be linked to the traditional peer review process, in which data and conclusions are put to the test by several scientists before publication, which improves the quality and impact of our work. While there have been calls for peer review to be replaced with other models such as open commentaries or altmetrics, they are fraught with other problems. Fortunately, Cerebral Cortex was an excellent journal for us to work with through the review and publication process, and is supportive of open access.

James Rowe

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