Open science and research ethics

19.5.2018

What has open science got to do with research ethics?

When we approach science with the open science model, the key is to make methodologies, data and results available to everyone to be used and examined. Open science includes practices like publishing in open access publications, self-archiving research results, depositing data in open repositories, and using open notebook methods in sharing research methodologies and outcomes as they evolve. But what has open science got to do with research ethics?

Transparency and openness are key values in research. Research that is not shared with others does not meet basic criteria of research itself and would make scientific progress very very slow, if not impossible.

Secondly, openness and transparency also reflect our ideals regarding appropriate research conduct. When our methodologies, data and results are openly shared with others, it is possible to confirm the reliability and validity of research results and thus create trust in the process and its outcomes.

Thirdly, open science is considered to positively promote research practices themselves, by creating increasing opportunities to collaborate, utilise existing data, results and methodologies. New technology has transformed our ability to engage with open science concepts – data storage capabilities, immediate sharing of data and results as well as speed of communication make open science possible.

At least three different challenges can be identified relating to privacy, academic credit, and financial structures.

With such strong ethical arguments for open science, are there any ethical challenges with the changing practice? At least three different challenges can be identified relating to privacy, academic credit, and financial structures.

Ethical challenges: privacy, academic credit, and financial structures

Firstly, privacy and confidentiality become key ethical questions when research data is based on humans. The more open research is, the more challenging can protecting privacy become. Anonymisation is a key tool to promote privacy and comply with duties of confidentiality. Anonymisation is not always possible, so the balance between the benefits of openness and the risks of losing privacy must be considered and evaluated carefully.

These aspects must be considered as early as possible and communicated to the participants as clearly as possible. Any informed consent procedure should openly consider the risks of loosing privacy and the steps taken to protect it. It has been said that the data should be as open as possible, but as closed as necessary.

Secondly, the current academic merit system is strongly based on authorship of research output, typically articles and books. Data ownership is strongly associated with a priority to publish from an interesting data set. If you have collected the data, you have a right to publish from it first and be credited for both the data and the analysis. If data is shared openly prior to analyzing and publishing, the opportunities to academically benefit from the often labour-intensive and slow data collection process diminishes as everyone has the same opportunity to gain publication credit from the same data.

This immediate and open sharing of data can also benefit the speed and efficiency of research and possibly also benefit the society by increased transfer of knowledge into practice. Simultaneously, the sense of unfairness and fear for personal loss of opportunities could create significant force to change how individuals behave to protect their own career opportunities. Fair distribution of credit is essential for a well-working research community, and the ethical challenge can be met by increasing diversity in the way academic credit is distributed and possibly including data collection one way to be recognized in the scientific community. This would allow both the values of credit and openness to be upheld simultaneously.

Thirdly, data is considered to be the new gold, or the source of power. The collection of vast databases, Big Data, has now sparked ethical questions not only related to privacy. The (commercial) owners of repositories have an opportunity to charge for access, creating exactly the barriers open science ethos opposes. The basic idea that at least the results and data originating from publicly funded research should be freely available to the public would oppose the collection of fee-charging repositories. Therefore the fair and appropriate ownership of data requires ethical consideration and investment in creation of infrastructures that promote the desired values of openness, fairness and transparency.

The ethical questions in open science challenge the research community to reconsider its deeply held definitions of ownership, sharing and credit.

Open science and research practices aligns well with key values of modern research. However, the ethical questions in open science challenge the research community to reconsider its deeply held definitions of ownership, sharing and credit.

Henriikka Mustajoki, PhD, lecturer in research ethics