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Going public with your research

The Open Science movement encourages scientists to make their materials, data and publications freely available for the good of everyone. Professor Marcus Munafò of the MRC Integrative Epidemiology Unit at the University of Bristol tells us why his group has begun to ‘go public’ with their research – and about some of the unexpected benefits that it can bring.

Marcus Munafò

Marcus Munafò (Image copyright MRC Integrative Epidemiology Unit at the University of Bristol)

Adopting an Open Science approach has been a gradual thing for us. We thought it was the right thing to do because our work is publicly funded and therefore should be made widely available as soon as possible. Sharing data also means that science can, in principle, progress more efficiently, because you may not need to collect new data if you can answer a question by using information that’s already out there.

However we’re now archiving our protocols on an online platform called the Open Science Framework (OSF) supported by the Centre for Open Science, a not-for-profit, US-based organisation. The website allows you to put materials, data and protocols online, which are then locked, date stamped, and made available for anyone to view.

We started with grant-funded projects, followed by PhD projects. Now, for everything we do involving collection of new data (including undergraduate projects), we register or publish the protocol in advance. This makes it transparent which analyses were pre-planned and which weren’t.

We don’t use the OSF for data files because Bristol has its own data repository. A description of the project is available for anyone to access and if the data are made open then anyone can download them. There are also restricted levels of access.

These levels of access are useful because as we started to move towards making our data open we realised we were going to have to change our informed consent procedures. Our old procedures asked study participants to consent to their anonymised data being made available to other researchers only. Now we ask them to consent to these data being made open. We can’t make data open for studies that used our old consent procedures; for these, if researchers want to access the data they can put in a request that we screen to ensure it complies with the relevant consent procedures.

One thing that we quickly realised was that when you know your research is going to be publicly available, you add another level of checking to the whole process – another level of quality control that we hadn’t anticipated, but which made perfect sense.

There is considerable discussion at the moment around issues of research reproducibility. In my opinion Open Science can improve reproducibility by increasing quality at each stage of the research process. Going public with our research hasn’t impacted on our productivity – it’s simply reshuffled the research process, for example writing detailed study protocols and analysis plans before data collection starts.

We’ve certainly found it a healthy and worthwhile thing to do. It shines a light on our work, makes us more accountable, and encourages us to slow down slightly and check everything one extra time. There’s been a positive reaction to it within my group. I think once you achieve a cultural change like this then it becomes self-sustaining.

Recently our first paper with a linked dataset was published. We tweeted the data repository link to the data file together with the link to the paper. Whenever people come to us to collaborate, we talk about the fact that we would like to apply the same principles. That’s not always our decision to make but we like to be clear about why we think it’s a good model.

I don’t think it’s a one-size-fits-all solution. For example, our work includes epidemiology and the analysis of data from existing data sets such as the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children. Whether it makes sense to pre-register study protocols when you already have access to the data isn’t clear, and these studies may have existing restrictions on whether the data contributing to a specific analysis can be made open.

Some people have concerns and reservations about different aspects of the Open Science model, such as issues of participant confidentiality and intellectual property, and these need to be respected and discussed. Having said that I hope that over time it becomes the norm – it’s certainly something that we feel has benefitted our work, and something we’ll carry on doing. 

Professor Marcus Munafo leads the Tobacco and Alcohol Research Group, part of the MRC Integrative Epidemiology Unit (IEU) at the University of Bristol. He is Professor of Biological Psychology in the university’s School of Experimental Psychology.

Listen to the full interview in the summer 2015 episode of our MRC talks podcast.

Supporting information

The MRC Integrative Epidemiology Unit (IEU) at the University of Bristol is increasingly adopting an Open Science model and makes the following publicly available: methods developed within the IEU via Open Access publication; software via open source applications available as code and web services; data, where existing permissions allow, as group-level datasets.

Marcus is part of a working group proposing cultural adjustments to incentivise better research practices. Read their commentary.

Read the MRC’s guidance on MRC data sharing and open access.

Download the Royal Society’s 2012 report, ‘Science as an open enterprise’.

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