open access

Open scholarship and the public

Dan Croft ~

Open Scholarship – also known as Open Science and Open Research – is an umbrella term for a variety of activities under which the products of scholarly or academic research are made freely available to any user (as opposed to the ‘pay-to-read’ model). Typically this happens online and with a specific, and usually generous, licence for use and reuse (as opposed to a restrictive licence such as ‘All rights reserved’).

This post will talk about some of the manifestations of Open Scholarship and, in particular, its relevance for researchers aiming to engage with the public. Wellcome describes the activities of ‘public engagement’ as follows:

inform people and make your research more accessible;
consult people and explore the ethical and social implications of your research;
collaborate with people and share expertise

Wellcome, ‘Planning your public engagement

Each section below will describe an aspect of Open Scholarship and how it relates to the informconsult, and collaborate activities of public engagement.

Open Access

Open Access is the primary manifestation of Open Scholarship. It typically refers to online scholarly text publications like journal articles, conference proceedings, books, and book chapters that have been made freely available to read. Here is an often-cited definition from Peter Suber:

Open-access (OA) literature is digital, online, free of charge, and free of most copyright and licensing restrictions.

Suber, ‘a very brief introduction to open access

Open Access dramatically reduces the financial and practical barriers between the public and academic research. As a result the public is provided with access to high quality publications that they can read to inform their interests or the significant decisions they have to make in their personal or professional lives. 

Currently we have a situation where members of the public often cannot access academic research unless they pay significant fees. George Monbiot, writing for The Guardian, describes how he felt compelled to use the copyright-infringing website Sci-Hub to circumvent paywalls (i.e. to access journal articles that were not Open Access):

After my cancer diagnosis this year, I was offered a choice of treatments. I wanted to make an informed decision. This meant reading scientific papers. Had I not used the stolen material provided by Sci-Hub, it would have cost me thousands. Because, like most people, I don’t have this kind of money, I would have given up before I was properly informed.

Monbiot, ‘Scientific publishing is a rip-off. We fund the research – it should be free

To give an idea of the cost that Monbiot alludes to, a study found that of three literature reviews (a key publication for understanding the effectiveness of medical interventions) 24%, 30%, and 52% of the reviewed literature was behind a paywall, with the cost of accessing them estimated at £320, £1322, and £2687 respectively. As the authors succinctly summarised:

Patients and organisations that do not have access to journal subscriptions may face substantial costs to access journal articles when reviewing the literature. Where visiting a university library or collaborating with university-based researchers is not feasible, this barrier to publications is likely to prevent patients from being able to access all of the available evidence, without prohibitive costs.

Bobrowska, Davies, Goff-Leggett, Evans, ‘The proportion of articles behind paywalls – a barrier to patient access?

But even professional medical staff who work for healthcare institutions cannot access all the information they need because they too face paywalls:

For health professionals based in low and middle income countries the quest of accessing research papers is extremely time consuming and often unsuccessful. In countries where resources are scarce, hospitals and institutions don’t pay for journal subscriptions, and patients ultimately pay the price.

Norori, ‘Open in order to ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages

It is worth noting that access to scholarly research for medical institutions (or any other type of public service institution or organisation) is also a challenge in high income countries where resources are in relative abundance. As such, we can see that Open Access helps to inform not only individual members of the public, but also to inform the delivery of public services.

A final relation between Open Access and public engagement relates to how academic research is funded:

Much scientific and medical research is paid for with public funds. Open Access allows taxpayers to see the results of their investment.

PLOS, ‘Benefits of Open Access Journals

This is particularly true in the UK where 74% of research income for UK universities in 2013/14 was funded by the EU or UK governments (this % was calculated by adding ‘Other public sources’, ‘Governmental science budget’, and ‘European Union’ from the figure below).

By making scholarship Open Access it demonstrates and justifies to the public the value of investing public money in funding academic research. As such, the wider societal process of producing scholarly research can be reconsidered (through the prism of public engagement) as an activity through which the public and academics collaborate to produce academic research, and the costs and benefits are shared between them.

Oxford Brookes has a collection of Open Access publications on RADAR (our institutional repository) which can be accessed by any member of the public with internet access.

Open Peer Review

Related to Open Access is the idea that the primary quality control mechanism for scholarly literature – peer review – should be transparent to readers. Examples of publishers and publications moving towards Open Peer Review include Wellcome Open Research and the recent announcement from the Royal Society.

Open Peer Review is primarily conceived as a benefit for scholars rather than the general public, but a transparently rigorous quality control mechanism also plays a role in public engagement.

It is often said that our news and social media is adulterated with disinformation, propaganda, and ‘fake news’. Some commentators have recommended technological solutions to this problem (e.g. algorithms or block chain) or an improvement in a particular literacy (information literacy, digital literacy, media literacy, or news literacy), but a primary factor is trust:

much of what we believe to be true about the world is actually taken on trust, via newspapers, experts, officials and broadcasters… A modern liberal society is a complex web of trust relations, held together by reports, accounts, records and testimonies

Davies, ‘Why we stopped trusting elites

Open Peer Review establishes a basis for trust in that it demonstrates to the public why scholarly literature can be more trustworthy than other forms of publicly available information. In the sense that it increases transparency in the production and sharing of academic expertise with the public, it is another way that scholars can collaborate with the public.

Open Data

Traditionally the results of scholarly research were published only as a text publication – a journal article, conference proceeding, or book – but increasingly researchers are being asked to also freely share or publish the data that informs their text publications.  This is called Open Data:

Open Data is research data that: Is freely available on the internet; Permits any user to download, copy, analyze, re-process, pass to software or use for any other purpose; and Is without financial, legal, or technical barriers other than those inseparable from gaining access to the internet itself.

Sparc, ‘open data

Like with Open Access publications, Open Data can be regarded as a public engagement activity through the way in which academics (as the researcher) and the public (as a research funder for the majority of research projects in the UK) collaborate to produce the data. Research data is expensive to produce (especially for big projects using specialist equipment or large numbers of participants) so reusing data across multiple research projects maximises the benefits of the collaboration for both researchers and the public. 

Also, similarly to Open Peer Review, Open Data is a mechanism for improving public trust in academic research. The ‘replication crisis‘ currently afflicting multiple disciplines can be addressed, in part, by more commonly publishing the data that informs research projects. 

The significance of Open Data for replication is illustrated by the ‘Reinhart-Rogoff error’:

Reinhart and Rogoff’s work…was employed repeatedly in political arguments over high-profile austerity measures [but] Herndon, Ash and Pollin obtained the actual spreadsheet that Reinhart and Rogoff used for their calculations; and after analysing this data, they identified three errors…[meaning] the key conclusion of a seminal paper, which has been widely quoted in political debates in North America, Europe, Australia and elsewhere, was invalid

Borwein and Bailey, ‘The Reinhart-Rogoff error

Making research data available in an accessible format allows peer reviewers and other researchers to thoroughly examine, understand, and – if necessary – attempt to reproduce the research project and confirm or challenge the original findings (and preferably before that research is used to inform governmental policies!). 

Meanwhile, a final public engagement aspect of Open Data is the potential for the published data to be used to inform the running of public services. One example is the Open Data Institute (ODI):

The ODI has conducted research into public services and the role open data plays in making them better and more cost effective. The findings give us new insights into the conditions needed to grow successful open data ecosystems for public service delivery. 

Open data institute, ‘Using open data for public services

Oxford Brookes has a variety of Open Data collections on RADAR:

RADAR has a general Research Data collection and individual collections for the data from specific research centres (e.g. Sonic Art Research Unit) or projects (e.g. Italian Cinema Audiences)

Open Notebooks, Open Source, and Open Hardware

Other aspects of Open Scholarship that are similar to Open Data are Open Notebooks, Open Source Software, and Open Hardware:

  • Open Notebooks: making laboratory notebooks freely and digitally available.
  • Open Source Software: providing the code of software for reuse and development. Open Source Software is much larger than just academic research but is a ‘best’ practice for researchers who create computer programs as part of their projects.
  • Open Hardware: instructions for how to construct physical or analogue devices and artefacts.

These aspects of Open Scholarship relate to the activities of public engagement in how scholars and the public collaborate in the production of academic research: they make the processes and methodologies of academic research more transparent (and therefore trustworthy to the public) and allow the findings or methodologies of research projects to be readily reused in new research projects (which benefits researchers and research funders – i.e. the public – alike).

Open Education

Open Education comes in many forms (and of differing scales) including a public lecture, a set of lecture slides freely available online, an Open Access textbook, and a massive open online course (MOOC).  However, they all have a particular principle in common that strongly aligns with the public engagement activities of inform and collaborate:

Proponents of open education believe everyone in the world should have access to high-quality educational experiences and resources, and they work to eliminate barriers to this goal. Such barriers might include high monetary costs, outdated or obsolete materials, and legal mechanisms that prevent collaboration among scholars and educators., ‘What is open education?’

One word that often arises in relation to Open Education is ‘flexibility’: in Open Education students fit their learning around their existing commitments. This is defined in opposition to a formal education system that often requires the student to conform to the schedule and location of the educator.

This flexibility has been demonstrably successful in attracting members of the public to sign up for Open Education courses such as MOOC’s:

Around 23 million new learners signed up for their first MOOC in 2017, taking the total number of learners to 81 million

Shah, ‘By The Numbers: MOOCS in 2017

Open Education can also be a public engagement collaboration by reducing the cost of formal education. At Tidewater College (Norfolk, Vancouver) they offered ‘Z classes’, or ‘Zero books required’ classes:

When it comes to sticking with a class, students are more likely to stay in classes where the materials are free. About 1.7% of students dropped a Z course over the past four semesters, compared to 2.6% percent who dropped a non-Z class…For every $1 TCC spent on the initiative, students save over $4, and that number is fully expected to grow over time…[Professors] see a real advantage in students having immediate access to books from day one of class—no more excuses for not buying a book and diving right into the material

SPARC, ‘Reducing Textbook Cost to $0

A common form of Open Education is Open Educational Resources (OER). These tend to be smaller learning objects than a MOOC (which is a full course or programme of study) and can consist of a set of slides, a video, quiz, syllabus, podcast, lesson plan or any other type of learning/teaching material that can be freely used, adapted, and redistributed by any member of the public.

Oxford Brookes has an Open Educational Resources collection on RADAR that any Oxford Brookes academic can contribute their teaching materials to, and that any member of the public can access:

Citizen Science

An example of Open Scholarship in action

Citizen Science (and the overlapping terms of independent scholars and crowd-sourced research) are ways through which members of the public perform or participate in professional-quality research. The European Commission have created a useful infographic on Environmental Citizen Science, though many of the principles it discusses relate to Citizen Science in any discipline.

The European Citizen Science Association has Ten principles of citizen science and several of these principles emphasise that Citizen Science is not an exercise in public relations or community-engagement, but is a particular and legitimate methodological approach:

  • Citizen science projects have a genuine science outcome.
  • Citizen science is considered a research approach like any other, with limitations and biases that should be considered and controlled for.
  • Citizen science programmes are evaluated for their scientific output, data quality, participant experience and wider societal or policy impact.

Examples of Citizen Science include solo non-professional scholars, such as an amateur astronomer making the first observation of a supernova “shock breakout”, to tens of thousands of individuals folding virtual proteins to redesign enzymes to make them more efficient.

Citizen Science is a particularly acute example of the overlap between
Open Scholarship and public engagement because Citizen Scientists and independent scholars sit outside of the usual support infrastructures of universities and research institutions:

Science endeavors to be a collaborative and open process. Unfortunately, it can be challenging for independent citizen scientists to share their data or publish their research findings…Thankfully, the barriers are coming down. Online data repositories are available to both professional and non-professional scientists. Increasingly, publishers are making their primary research articles ‘open access’ (free) and are actively encouraging citizen scientists to submit articles for publication.

Plos, ‘Open science: resources for sharing and publishing citizen science research

As such, Citizen Science demonstrates how Open Scholarship can help to fulfill all three activities of public engagement: inform, consult, collaborate.


Here are several themes from the examples above about how Open Scholarship relates to the activities of public engagement as described by Wellcome at the start of this blog post:

  • Inform: Open Scholarship directly improves public life by making scholarly research freely available to individual members of the public and organisations that provide public services for their information or interest
  • Collaborate: Open Scholarship provides value-for-money for taxpayers through making the products of publicly funded teaching and research freely available to the public, and by allowing the reuse of these scholarly materials in future scholarly research and teaching
  • Collaborate: Open Scholarship increases trust in academic experts by increasing transparency in the processes through which academic research is conducted, reviewed, and made available to the public

If you are an academic who would like to be more involved in Open Scholarship then you might consider taking part in the recently released Open Science MOOC, or joining an organisation such as FORCE11: the future of research communication and e-scholarship or SPARC (the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition).

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