Open Access Champion 2013 – Alex Holcombe

To celebrate Open Access Week 2013, the Australian Open Access Support Group is recognising two ‘Open Access Champions’ – an individual and an organisation.

The Open Access Champion 2013 – Individual Category – has been awarded to Associate Professor Alex O. Holcombe, who is a psychologist studying human visual perception and visual attention. He is based in the School of Psychology at the University of Sydney. Alex spoke to Danny Kingsley about his interest in open access and how he is spreading the message.

The realisation that there were flaws with the scholarly communication system started during Alex’s PhD when he began publishing in academic journals. “It was hard not to notice the many closed aspects of the process,” he said. “Research is supposed to be well documented but it is published without raw data and often the article is behind paywalls”.

But the issues Alex identified were broader than just access challenges. During meetings of journal clubs – where PhD students bring in articles for discussions – inevitably people came up with criticisms even for articles published in Nature or Science. “Yet there was no indication of any weaknesses in the paper,” explained Alex. “The group often were left wondering ‘how did this get past peer review?’”.

There was no way for others to point out errors in already published papers. Alex and his colleagues concluded this system cannot be the future of communication if these problems are being swept under the rug.

During his postdoctoral fellowship Alex began his advocacy, submitting with a colleague a letter to Nature “Improving science through online commentary” which was published in May 2003 (the paper can be downloaded from here).  The pair also contacted the director of PubMed, which was not able to add this capability at the time.

When Alex became a lecturer in Cardiff, Wales, “PLOS had just started and they were thinking of starting PLOS One, they sent a survey around to test the waters”. Alex joined the founding advisory board, and watched PLoS ONE grow to become the largest journal in the world.

Australian advocacy

Alex has been in Australia for the last seven years and became an Australian citizen last week. His activities in the open access arena has ranged from writing articles for The Conversation to blogging, advocating at professional meetings and universities, and working on new open-access scientific journal initiatives. “I have seen how the movement has gained steam”, he said.

Alex shares the difficulty most open access advocates face: “It is hard to get the academic community involved,” he said. “Most people don’t give a thought to open access”.

One solution is to jump on newsworthy items that engage academics. Alex has made several presentations to his colleagues about open access. The Australian Research Council mandate has proven to be a good excuse to have conversations about open access in the university because researchers need to know about it. Another way of spreading the message is engaging people in casual conversation.

But Alex thinks the big boon for open access has been the rise in social media because it allows a continuing dialogue around “meta-issues that aren’t normally discussed outside the pub. These are backchannels cutting across academic disciplines that we didn’t have when we started”.

He also notes that The Conversation has been a great development in Australia. The information authors receive means “I know people are reading it, and not just academics”, he said. Comments on articles are made by academics, doctors and business people. One example is a small solar technology company that needs access to engineering journals.

Future projects

Alex continues to work towards a more effective scientific communication system. One new project he is involved in is the “Registered Replication Reports” (RRR) project where he is taking an editorial role. This is a new and open-access type of article in Perspectives on Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, the peak organisation in scientific psychology.

“In psychology research there are many disputed findings and people want to know if the findings will replicate,” he explained. But in the current system, it is difficult to publish negative findings such as non-replications.

The new RRR replication process begins with a submission of a proposal for an experiment that should be replicated. If the associated research is deemed important to replicate, a replication protocol is developed in conjunction with the original author.

The entire protocol – the exact series of steps involved in the experiments – is then announced prior to any collection of data.  Such preregistration often required for clinical trials to protect against bias in reporting the eventual results. But this process is only beginning to reach other types of research. Every step is documented on the Open Science Framework website with all raw data posted on the site. Commentary is encouraged, and “if it is important enough it will be published in the pages of the journal”, he said.

The project is a world-wide effort. “The first one has 27 labs across the world participating,” he said. “We have 27 datasets coming in”. The project promises to publish the results as a summary of the big experiment in the journals, with all the contributors are co-authors.

Alex is hoping that as people see this replication data it will push the broader open access message because people will see the value of making the raw data publicly available.

“To further open research we need policy changes, plus education, plus cultural change,” said Alex. “Cultural change is furthered by sharing positive examples”. This is the philosophy behind a second project in which Alex is currently involved, called “Badges to Acknowledge Open Practices”.

These badges will appear alongside articles in journals to acknowledge researchers sharing their materials, their data, and preregistering their methods., “Individual journals can decide to participate by awarding the badges to any articles they publish that meet the criteria”, he said. The project will be launched in Open Access Week and is led by the Center for Open Science.

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