‘Any discoveries made using public funding must be available to all’

Open Science

Femke Broere is Professor of Infectious Diseases and Immunology at Utrecht University (UU) and a member of the Utrecht University Open Science Platform. She is committed to promoting open science within UU and beyond.

Femke Broere
Femke Broere

What is open science?

‘The underlying principle of open science is to integrate science and society: any discoveries made using public funding must be available to all. One of the cornerstones of open science is ensuring publications are available free of charge, known as “open access”. Utrecht University has clear ambitions: all publications by UU academics must be open access by 2021. As it now stands, researchers in poorer countries are at a particular disadvantage in that they are frequently unable to access academic journals from major publishers.’ Last May, Elsevier and the Dutch research institutions launched the world's first national open science partnership. The partnership agreement includes services for the publication of and reader access to academic and scientific content and sets out the development of open science services for the valuation and dissemination of knowledge.

‘In addition to making articles themselves open access, it is also vital that the data on which research is based – including the methods used to collect and analyse the data – be made available to others as well. This makes it possible for others to reuse the data in new research.’

‘With open science, we want to make science more open, more reliable, more efficient and more relevant.’

Does that alter the role of academics?

‘No one can do everything. Who can say they are an excellent researcher, inspiring manager, enthusiastic researcher and are also capable of explaining things in a fun way on a children's television programme? And why would we want someone to be able to do all that, anyway? Broere feels that the transition to open science calls for a new way of evaluating research and researchers. ‘We need to start evaluating individual academics based on more than just their number of publications, and at the same time, shift our emphasis to achievements made as a team rather than through the work of a single leading researcher.’

Stakeholders both in the Netherlands and at an international level are hard at work on a new model, Broere explains. For instance: thousands of parties, including the VSNU, KNAW, NWO and Utrecht University, have signed the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment, a global initiative aimed at decreasing the reliance on publications and citations as a means of evaluating research and researchers. Major financial backers such as the EU and NWO already require academics to openly share their results – another contribution to the goal of open science.

Has the COVID-19 pandemic actually increased momentum?

‘An incredible need for scientific insights exists. The Dutch government bases its coronavirus-related policy on current scientific knowledge that is being openly shared. While the RIVM naturally conducts a great deal of research on its own, a large quantity of additional knowledge from other institutions is now becoming immediately available as well, such as data concerning the usefulness of personal protection equipment in veterinary practice and the likelihood of pets becoming infected with the virus.’

The major publishers have removed the paywalls around all literature related to the coronavirus, including articles about previous epidemics such as MERS and SARS in 2003. Prevalence statistics are being shared so that scientists all around the globe can work with them.
‘You can tell that people are more willing to share nowadays, because there is a tremendous sense of urgency. A new trend we're seeing in the current period is that scientific studies are being openly shared before having undergone peer review.’ According to Broere, this has both advantages and disadvantages: on the one hand, knowledge becomes available more quickly and can immediately be put to use. Yet on the other hand, there is also a chance that a given article will later be retracted if it is rejected during peer review. ‘You have to have faith in other people's ability to accurately judge the information, which can be quite suspenseful at times.’

The Open Science Programme was founded by Utrecht University for the purpose of encouraging and facilitating researchers in putting Open Science into practice.

How will open science affect veterinarians?

‘The programme focuses quite strongly on evidence-based medicine. During their time at university, students are constantly exposed to new scientific insights. Yet if they go into primary practice after graduation, they will probably no longer have access to academic and scientific publications. Open access will change this: by making the latest veterinary expertise freely accessible to all, vets will be able to apply that knowledge in treating their patients.’

And other target groups?

‘Listen, a baker might not find an academic text on mathematical epidemiological models particularly useful for their day-to-day work. Nor would I, for that matter,’ Broere says, grinning. ‘You have to share your knowledge with your target groups in the right way, so that it is both relevant for them and avoids creating false expectations. That's why public engagement and outreach is another cornerstone of open science. To reach the general public, for instance, we use the Weekend of Science and/or science-related television programmes. Policymakers and other parties are in turn being informed via other channels. A good example is the IRAS, the Institute for Risk Assessment Sciences at Utrecht University: the knowledge they generate provides a basis for the Dutch government's decision-making as to where we should or shouldn't be building new housing. With open science, we want to make science more open, more reliable, more efficient and more relevant. The more effectively we share our knowledge with the rest of the world, the greater our positive impact will be.’ 

This is an article from Vetscience no. 8, July 2020.