‘The world needs more easily accessible information about scientific research,’ UP Africa Week scientific leadership summit hears

Posted on May 31, 2023

Leaders of scientific networks, higher learning institutions, academics, and government entities from across the world have called for reform of the “broken system” related to how scientific research is published and disseminated. The calls were made during the University of Pretoria’s (UP) Africa Week 2023 scientific leadership summit, which took place at UP’s Future Africa Campus in Hatfield from 24 to 26 May 2023.

Participants in the discussion agreed that there are fundamental obstacles that limit the potential of open science as a tool to tackle the world’s greatest challenges. Open science is a global movement to make information about scientific research easily accessible at all levels of society. 

With Africa Week 2023 themed ‘Open Africa, Open Science’, the biennial platform encouraged thought leaders to express their frustration with the restrictions and limitations placed on scientific research; restrictions which limit the potential for scientific outputs to be seen as a public good. Participants said most scientific research is still not freely accessible, open to collaboration, or transparent. In addition, the current closed system plays host to large amounts of scientific research that is not transparent about its data and methods, and as a result cannot be reproduced, making it unreliable and not trustworthy.

Panel members Dr Kostas Glinos, European Commission (EC) Director-General for Research and Innovation and former Head of the EC Unit for Open Science, calls for open access to scientific research.

“In some areas, study after study shows that up to 85% of biomedical research – we are spending almost $400 billion per year globally on biomedical research – is not reproducible,” said Dr Kostas Glinos, European Commission (EC) Director-General for Research and Innovation and former Head of the EC Unit for Open Science. “What does it mean if is not reproducible? It means it cannot be trusted. Others cannot rely on these results to go further. What a waste.”

Dr Glinos also said the scientific research community is no longer producing innovation, and studies show that the rate of breakthroughs has stayed remarkably constant since the 1950s in some fields, such as engineering, cancer, and others.

“Money has gone up between 20, 30, and 40 times since the 1950s. The number of researchers has gone up towards expansion, but we are still producing the same research, which means productivity has plummeted. So, yes, we desperately need another system. We desperately need to fix the system. Professor Ahmed Bawa [former CEO of Universities South Africa and member of the International Science Council Open Science Working Group South Africa] said earlier that the system is broken, and I could not agree more.”

Dr Glinos said open science is about fixing the system. “Some said COVID-19 gave a boost to open science. Yes, some were true, but only somewhat. If you take the first six months, because it is studied over an abstract of papers published, the number of those that made their data available or even that they had their data availability statement within the paper, is actually less than the average. You would say we are in this world crisis and we should be sharing, but no, we are not sharing.”    

Most audience members seemed to agree that the same could be said about other world challenges, like climate change and biodiversity. Some of the fundamental problems thought leaders and audience seemed to agree on with regard to open science included: Lack of incentives for being open (curating data settings and making them available for others takes time); an unreformed publishing system (which is at the root of many of the ills of the science system); inadequate infrastructure; and equity. Dr Glinos said open science was not hard to accomplish: “People and institutions should be getting started.”

Professor Loretta Feris, Vice-Principal: Academic at UP, said some African and global governments were keen to use open science to meet their commitment to addressing environmental problems such as removing carbon emissions in the atmosphere, but argued that to succeed they would require support and a commitment to capacity building in the scientific space. They acknowledged they did not have the capacity, and asked for an agreement on open science, technology transfer, and removal of imperatives such as licensing on scientific endeavours and intellectual property.

Dr Ed Gerstner, Director of Journals, Policy, and Strategy at German-British academic publishing company, Springer Nature, said: “We need to be measuring what we value, and we need to value what we are measuring. It makes no sense to be measuring the number of papers that are from a lab. That is not to say it makes no sense to be assessing papers from that lab, but it should not be the number; it should be the reproducibility, the content, the openness, the impact, and so on. We have to fix that.”

- Author James Mahlokwane

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