Why Open Research?

In May of this year, I was awarded a flash grant by the Shuttleworth Foundation to make an ‘open’ project of my choosing a reality. On November 14th, at OpenCon 2015 in Brussels, I announced the launch of Why Open Research?, an educational resource for researchers to learn about the benefits of sharing their work. This is the story of how the project was born and what I hope it will accomplish.

For the last 20 months, I’ve traveled to conferences and universities, speaking to scholarly communications professionals and researchers about open access, open data, and open science. Many of these events were excellent and have been crucial in shaping my thinking about open scholarship. But after awhile I became frustrated that I was often ‘preaching to the choir’. The scholarly communications people in the room needed no convincing that ‘open’ is the way to go, and the researchers in attendance were often there because they already had an interest in open practices. The very people I needed to convince – the most traditional researchers, those skeptical about ‘open’ – were rarely in the room. How could I reach new audiences? I needed to go where researchers go, to their scientific meetings. But even if I could get there, how was I going to transmit my message? Open scholarship isn’t usually on the agenda at most scientific meetings. I wouldn’t be able to show these audiences a slide deck. I needed new and creative ways to reach more researchers.

After discussion with several people in the open community, I decided print materials were the way to go. If I could do something as simple as drop leaflets on tables and chairs at conferences, I could reach potentially hundreds of researchers. Even better, if I could get these leaflets into publisher booths at conferences, I might potentially reach thousands. Researchers do visit these booths. Let’s admit it – we’re often drawn in by the swag (pens, stickers, tote bags, shirts!). But we’re also interested in finding out more about publishing options and walk away with journal brochures. What if I could convince some publishers to include my leaflets in their booths? Of course, not all publishers are interested in promoting ‘open’. But most open access publishers are, not just because it benefits them in the form of submissions, but also because they genuinely believe in open scholarship.

Libraries could also be excellent partners. I often get requests from librarians to reuse my slides for educational events like those held during International Open Access Week. My slide decks are all openly licensed and I share them via figshare, but they’re not modifiable (I use LaTeX beamer so the output is pdf) and again require that you have a forum in which to present. If I could create shareable and modifiable educational leaflets about open scholarship, particularly addressing the most frequently asked questions from researchers, it could be a useful resource for libraries and another way to reach new audiences.

It couldn’t just be any resource. I had to create something that would appeal to researchers. While some informative materials on ‘open’ exist (e.g. UNESCO’s open access curriculum), I think many are too detailed and too long to be effective for the majority of researchers. Their plates are already full and most aren’t willing to dedicate a lot of time to learning specifically about ‘open’. If you want researchers to adopt new practices, you have to show them that these practices can benefit them and fit into their workflow. And you have to be able to explain this to them quickly and effectively. I felt the project had to be very visual, focusing on images rather than text.

I’m fortunate to have a talented artist in the family. Over the last few months, when I couldn’t find the right image to emphasize a point in a talk, I asked my dad, John McKiernan, to draw something. He came up with a small series of cartoons that brilliantly portrayed some common myths about open access. These cartoons were hugely effective in talks – they got people’s attention, made them laugh, but also got key points across. After talking to my dad, we decided to make his drawings the heart and soul of the project and to extend his series.

Source: John R. McKiernan, Why Open Research, licensed CC BY. Illustrating the high cost of publishing in some journals.

Throughout project development, I got great feedback from Joe McArthur and Nick Shockey of the Right to Research Coalition (SPARC). And I was particularly inspired by some advocacy resources R2RC had previously developed, including these card sheets [pdf] designed to explain the access problem to students. The beauty of these cards is their simplicity: one card, one message, one link. I thought cards like these with one cartoon and one message would be perfect print materials to grab researchers’ attention.

With the excellent help of Nick Toce (Square One Printing), we put together the first five card sheets. Here’s an example of the front and back of one of those sheets:

Front of one sample card sheet from Why Open Research? Illustrations by John R. McKiernan, CC BY.
Back of the above sample card sheet from Why Open Research? 

You can download the complete Why Open Research? cartoon card sheets directly via the website or via figshare. Text on these cards is modifiable, allowing publishers, libraries, and others to customize before printing. More cards are currently in the works, as are plans to translate these materials into several different languages.

Print materials weren’t enough, though. After getting people’s attention with the cards, we would need a place they could go for more information. So I set out to create a website, again centered around the cartoons, linking the print materials with the online resources. And so whyopenresearch.org was born. The information pages are written with minimal text and include additional visuals, like figures from published articles, showing the benefits of open practices. The idea is to make the material easy and fun to read, and to quickly convey to researchers the main benefits of sharing. This was my first attempt at building a website and would not have been possible without the help of two resources. The first is HTML5 UP, where I found the fantastic and free Helios template I used for the site. The second is Stack Overflow, where I found answers to many of my html questions. Thank goodness for those willing to share their expertise!

So, how did I spend the $5,000 US dollars from the flash grant? At least $1,000 will go to the artist. He may be my dad, but he’s also a very talented artist in his own right who deserves to be paid for the work that is so central to this project. I paid ~$40 in domain names from GoDaddy. The primary domain name is paid up for two years. Hosting of the site is done for free through GitHub Pages (I’ll soon be making the repository public so that people will have access to the source files). Unless it becomes necessary, I don’t plan to invest in any professional hosting at this time. Finally, ~$150-500 will go to the graphic designer (Nick Toce) working on the print resources (depending on how many more card sheets we do). That’s a grand total of $1,190-1,540 to date, leaving plenty of money left over to do some great things! I plan to invest some of that money in an initial batch of printing, and probably a trip to at least one major conference to begin promoting the materials more widely.

A huge thank you to the Shuttleworth Foundation for making this project possible; to Peter Murray-Rust for nominating me for the flash grant; to Nick, Joe, R2RC, and the SPARC family for their feedback and support; and to many others in the open community (apologies that I can’t name you all here) for feedback and encouragement.

If you have questions or feedback about Why Open Research?, please send an email to whyopenresearch[at]gmail[dot]com. You can also follow the project on Facebook and Twitter.


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