What is open science?

The question

Wikipedia suggests that open science began in the 17th century, with the start of the academic journal. Some say that open science started in 1957 with the establishment of the World Data Center system, for International Geophysical Year. The system was established with agreement for “free and open exchange of [geophysical] data among nations”.  I’d assumed that open science started much later, but it all depends what you mean by ‘open science’.

Kendra Godwin wrote that “open science, while often discussed, is not well understood nor uniformly defined”. Jeroen Bosman and Bianca Kramer also observed that there is a great deal of variation in definitions of what open science is. They explain it thus:

Rather than see this as a problematic lack of focus, or as a sign that it is too early to define what open science is or not, we’d argue that the scope of open science and the variety of actors involved make it not realistic, and even counterproductive, to expect there to be, now or in the future, one definition of open science that fits all.

This has not stopped people from attempting to come up with definitions! Bosman and Kramer categorise five types of definitions, from high-level definitions and all-embracing definitions to practical definitions, plus personal and catchphrase definitions.

I started thinking about this when the Crick announced its ‘open science collaboration’ with pharmaceutical company GSK, three years ago. The press release noted that “research findings from the collaboration will be shared with the broader scientific community, via joint publication in peer-reviewed journals”. I felt uncomfortable with the designation of this as ‘open science’ as it seemed very different from what I understood by that term. One or two tweets at the time showed I was not alone. When I thought about it more I realised that there was no absolute level of openness. This initiative was certainly more open than GSK’s standard practice, but equally clearly less open than research at the Montreal Neurological Institute (the most open research institute I know of).

How can we judge at what point along the spectrum from ‘closed’ to ‘open’ does research qualify for the ‘open science’ badge? It’s a conundrum.

The answer

I thought it would be a good idea therefore to assemble a group of experts to shed more light on open science. A meeting of Open Research London on 3 October 2018 at the Francis Crick Institute will feature four top speakers who will give their thoughts on open science, in particular the relationship between open science and commercial activity:

  • Patrick Vallance
  • Jenny Molloy
  • Wen Hwa Lee
  • Tim Britton

More details are here and an Eventbrite page will go live on 30 August.


To set the scene for the meeting I’ve been doing some reading and thought I’d inflict it on you. I looked at a few definitions of open science. Many of the definitions put sharing research outputs at the heart of open science, but they differ in the details of what is to be shared. Openness and reuse are also key to many, while several definitions refer to the use of digital technology and collaborative tools. Most of the sharing is targeted at the scientific community but some definitions target the broader population too – public engagement and citizen science. Some definitions were pithy: ‘Increased sharing among scientists‘  or inscrutable ‘To make scientific research [outputs] accessible to all levels of an inquiring society‘. One is almost a slogan: ‘Open science isn’t a movement, it’s just (good) science‘and one is far-reaching ‘Carrying out scientific research in a completely transparent manner, and making the results of that research available to everyone‘. A longer list of quotes from definitions is at the end of this post in Table 1.

Three extensive reports about open science have recently appeared. These are from the US National Academy of Sciences (NAS), from the League of European Research Universities (LERU) and an international group of open scholars, led by Jon Tennant.

The LERU document states that “Open Science is not about dogma; it is about greater efficiency and productivity, more transparency and a better response to interdisciplinary research needs”. It also refers to the eight pillars of Open Science identified by the European Commission: the future of scholarly publishing, FAIR data, the European Open Science Cloud, education and skills, rewards and incentives, next-generation metrics, research integrity, and citizen science. These pillars are more all-embracing than most of the definitions above, though more aimed at policy-makers than researchers. The NAS report states that “Openness and sharing of information are fundamental to the progress of science and to the effective functioning of the research enterprise”, raising the stakes to an existential level. Finally, Jon Tennant et al’s open strategy document avoids attempting any definition, saying “it is a holistic term that encompasses many disciplines, practices, and principles”.

What, why and how to share?

Most definitions talk about sharing papers and sharing data, but several also mention software code and methods, and a couple mention sharing of peer reviews too.

Many definitions omit to mention the purpose behind open science.  Typically these are to do with accelerating and improving science:

  • to boost collaborative progress and bring greater transparency
  • to transform the entire endeavour of science
  • boosting information flow can improve our collective cognition

If open science is about sharing, then to do it you must simply share your outputs, in some kind of repository. Some definitions put more emphasis on collaboration and on digital technology – which is kind of a given I’d have thought. (I don’t see much about open science sharing using stone tablets or parchment scrolls). Open licensing (Creative Commons etc) is also a key to effective sharing. Some definitions talk about sharing throughout the whole research life cycle.

Open and commercial – innovation

Some definitions of open science also refer to open innovation.  As noted above, the pharma company GSK has adopted a number of open innovation strategies. In the pharmaceutical industry, the concept of open innovation has received a fair amount of attention as a possible countermeasure to the general decline in R&D productivity. In a recent paper Bountra, Lee and Lezaun argue that ‘open science approaches represent the most promising path forward’ for drug discovery.

Open and commercial – infrastructure

Much attention has been given recently to the question of commercial infrastructure that supports open science and the conditions that may need to be imposed.  Do commercial companies have a positive role to play in the development of scholarly communications infrastructure? Mark Hahnel warns that universities should be encouraged to take help from outside of academia when developing open science infrastructure, but should be careful in these dealings. Opinion is divided between those like Hahnel who think that there is nothing about open access/open science as such that precludes for-profit provision and those who believe that the profit motive is absolutely misaligned with the core values of academic life (10).

Jefferson Pooley has observed that ‘much of the for-profit scholarly communication ecosystem sits on the value-extraction end of the continuum‘, not the value-adding end. Jon Tennant wrote in a typically hard-hitting opinion piece, about the ‘corrupting’ effect that Elsevier has on open science in Europe.


It seems that no single definition of open science fits all circumstances. I think the concepts of ‘more open’ and ‘less open’ are easier to pin down than the absolute of ‘Open’ with a capital O.  I saw another definition mentioned on Twitter that is quite good, in a different way, but it doesn’t cover every aspect.

I hope that the Open Research London event on 3 October will give us some more ways of thinking about open science. See you there!

Sources linked to in text

  • https://datascience.nih.gov/WhatisOpenScience
  • https://im2punt0.wordpress.com/2017/03/27/defining-open-science-definitions/
  • https://about.hindawi.com/opinion/a-radically-open-approach-to-developing-infrastructure-for-open-science
  • http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2017/10/11/open-source-commercial-non-profit-for-profit-what-power-have-you-got/
  • http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2017/08/15/scholarly-communications-shouldnt-just-be-open-but-non-profit-too/
  • http://uk.gsk.com/en-gb/research/sharing-our-research/open-innovation/
  • https://www.theguardian.com/science/political-science/2018/jun/29/elsevier-are-corrupting-open-science-in-europe
  • https://www.future-science.com/doi/full/10.4155/fmc.15.122
  • https://www.leru.org/publications/open-science-and-its-role-in-universities-a-roadmap-for-cultural-change
  • https://zenodo.org/record/1323437#.W22mqNhKjOR
  • https://www.nap.edu/catalog/25116/open-science-by-design-realizing-a-vision-for-21st-century
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_Geophysical_Year#World_Data_Centers
  • https://www.crick.ac.uk/news/2015-07-14-gsk
  • http://science.sciencemag.org/content/351/6271/329
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open_science
  • https://www.oxfordmartin.ox.ac.uk/publications/view/2613

Table 1

Phrases used to describe open science Ref.
Increased sharing among scientists 1
Reinventing the way we work together in the context of the web 2
Open Science is open [research outputs] 2
A new approach to the scientific process 2
Cooperative work and new ways of diffusing knowledge by using digital technologies and new collaborative tools 2
To make scientific research [outputs] accessible to all levels of an inquiring society 2
Right to use, reuse, modify, redistribute scholarly knowledge 2
Open science isn’t a movement, it’s just (good) science 2
Open access to [research outputs], and other forms of multi-directional exchange between academic researchers themselves and with the public 3
Science is purposefully conducted with digital technologies and in collaboration with others… allows for and facilitates the intentional sharing and reuse of all generated products 4
Free availability of [research outputs]. 5
Carrying out scientific research in a completely transparent manner, and making the results of that research available to everyone 6
A system for scholarly communications that is built to maximize the dissemination and reuse of all research outputs throughout the research lifecycle 7
Sharing expertise, resources, intellectual property and know-how with external researchers and the scientific community 8
To boost collaborative progress and bring greater transparency 1
Will transform the entire endeavour of science 2
Boosting information flow can improve our collective cognition 2
Using web-based tools to facilitate scientific collaboration 9
Collaboration with people at different levels and in differing fields 4
A process rooted in and relying on digital technologies 4
Science conducted in a way that will allow for sharing and reuse 4
And involvement with any or all parts of the research life cycle 4
References in table

  1. http://blogs.plos.org/neuro/2018/01/31/open-science-sharing-is-caring-but-is-privacy-theft-by-david-mehler-and-kevin-weiner/
  2. https://im2punt0.wordpress.com/2017/03/27/defining-open-science-definitions/
  3. https://www.rand.org/blog/2017/10/can-open-science-help-to-make-research-more-accessible.html
  4. https://datascience.nih.gov/WhatisOpenScience
  5. http://www8.nationalacademies.org/onpinews/newsitem.aspx?RecordID=25116
  6. https://genomebiology.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s13059-015-0669-2
  7. https://about.hindawi.com/opinion/a-radically-open-approach-to-developing-infrastructure-for-open-science
  8. http://uk.gsk.com/en-gb/research/sharing-our-research/open-innovation/
  9. http://openscience.org/what-exactly-is-open-science/

Table 2

Research output No. of mentions
Papers 7
Data 7
Code 4
Methods 3
Peer reviews 2
Materials 1



About Frank Norman

I am a retired librarian. I spent 40 years working in biomedical research libraries.
This entry was posted in Open Access, Open Science, Research data. Bookmark the permalink.