Lack of trust, regulation, repositories bedevil open science

The sharing of scientific data has the potential to make science a commodity for international cooperation among countries and institutions, with the capacity to solve global problems for everyone’s benefit – but governance and regulation of access as well as repositories remain a challenge.

A session on open science at UNESCO’s World Higher Education Conference 2022, held in Barcelona in Spain from 18 to 20 May, heard that enhanced data-sharing practices could also end duplication of research by scientists in different parts of the world.

This is because it would make data more easily available in established repositories, saving the costs and time of doing research on a topic that has been investigated and published on. The session was titled “Innovations and proposals for inter-regional cooperation on Open Science from the perspective of universities”.

World Higher Education Conference 2022. This conference is convened by UNESCO and University World News is the exclusive media partner.

Coalition of the willing

Despite being one of the most advanced regions of the world scientifically, implementing unhindered science access remains a challenge in Europe, said Professor Michael Murphy, president of the European University Association.

This is despite policies and strategies that are in place to guide it, both at university and country levels.

“Citizen involvement in science in Europe is still low. What some of us have resolved to do is come up with a coalition of the willing by those who want to actualise open science, so that we can set an example to be followed by others,” he disclosed.

While economic and technological disparities exist between regions, this should not be a barrier to cooperation, Murphy said, noting that each actor had something they could learn from the other.

Removing barriers to increased access was critical, but must be guided by, and be in cognisance of, data protection and copyright laws.

It should also deliberately guard against the publication of fake data, which was widely witnessed at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Promoting trust among researchers

While open science did not imply open access, it would open doors for more research collaboration and increase the sharing of data, thereby promoting trust among researchers, said Professor Olusola Oyewole, the secretary-general of the Association of African Universities.

“The time has come to end scepticism about open science. It is now time for opening [up] research so that others can take part in it, and freely avail data to policymakers in government to use in making important decisions,” he told the session.

“Science should never have boundaries, since most of the problems it seeks to solve have no boundaries. It should, therefore, be freely shared to solve the global challenges facing humanity,” Oyewole added.

While trust among researchers in Africa was low, thereby hindering sharing, much data that could help the continent was held in repositories within its borders and beyond. However, the concept of open science was still very new in Africa and hardly developed. The continent had few science repositories and the data they held was rarely openly shared, said Oyewole.

The research community, he said, should never fear sharing data so long this was done in a responsible manner. All that was needed was for repositories to ensure that data in their custody was well guarded and was never released to unscrupulous people.

“Open access to scientific data does not need a political authority or even legislation to govern it. It should, nevertheless, be guarded against misuse or abuse. “All that is needed is regulation to guide release and access,” he added, noting that this would facilitate easier regional cooperation.

Opening science to communities in India

As in most places in Africa, India, too, had huge disparities in terms of access to, not just education, but also scientific information, based on geography, gender and socio-economic class, according to Dr Vidya Yeravdekar of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry and pro chancellor of Symbiosis International University in India.

This meant that, in the vast country, accessing science by ordinary users in some regions and by some economic classes would be impossible due lack of both the necessary gadgets and of access to the internet.

“When we talk about open access and open science, we may not be talking about those people, but then you must wonder if the data is of much importance if it is only for those in labs and academia in general,” said Yeravdekar.

It is because of such similarities that India could join hands with Africa in the spirit of inter-regional cooperation, to find solutions for making science not only accessible, but to also make it work for the people, she proposed.

India had initiated several measures to make science more freely and widely available. One such measure was to require all doctorate students to upload their research in a dedicated portal for access by all, including ‘communities’, she disclosed.

Issues of governance and accountability, Yeravdekar noted, needed to be well defined before inter-regional scientific cooperation could take place, observing that trust remained a major hindrance to open science.

This was further complicated by the fact that different regions had different levels of technological and digital advancements.

The same divide was evident between developing and developed countries, where scientific infrastructure was more advanced in the latter compared with the former.

“Sharing data with others is never easy. Even in universities, sharing and access is not open. This means that sharing it on open platforms is even harder without first addressing issues of governance,” she said.