A commitment to openness

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Director of open science and research lifecycle at Jisc, Rachel Bruce, tells us about the current challenges facing the research sector

Tell us a little bit about your background and career?

After graduating in politics I worked in university administration, before moving to the Higher Education and Funding Council for England (HEFCE). I was working in the team for London and also had responsibility for specialist colleges, via the Conservatoires Advisory Group, which set the funding and policy agenda for the support of conservatoires and their education and research.

I was also part of the secretariat to what were the RAE panels of the time, for drama, dance and performing arts, and earth and environmental sciences.

So straight after graduating, I became engaged in the research process; the disciplinary differences, and the ways research could be shared to vary impact.

Part of my brief was also to work with specialist libraries in support of research, and so quite by accident, my next move took me into a role where I was looking at information management and research resources. This was at a time when the internet was just taking off, and becoming part and parcel of everyday life. I remember going to visit people at universities and seeing this thing called Gopher – the original search engine in academia, before the Web.

Because of the emergence of digital, there were special initiatives looking at libraries at this time, and what was needed in this changing world. And because of my background at HEFCE, I then moved to King’s College London, where I worked on a national initiative digitising the specialist collections in libraries across the UK. The review panels involved the very best academic minds at the time, looking at what content should be digitised or made available via online catalogues.

There were some fascinating discoveries. For example, the Gertrude Bell archive at Newcastle University – one of the less well known but highly esteemed explorers – contained the earliest picture of Niagara Falls ever recorded.

One of the services that came out of this was the Archives Hub, which is what led me to Jisc. To develop this service, we needed to look at all the (less exciting) things like data exchange protocols, authority files and meta-data, and how to create the architecture and infrastructure needed to support access.
Has the open access agenda always shaped Jisc’s work?

I started life at Jisc as a programme manager, on a project that was jointly funded by the National Science Foundation in the US and Jisc. This was a fairly forward thinking project in digital libraries and from this, we began working on how to make sure researchers had maximum access to information and collections, and how we could do that collaboratively, building on expertise on both sides of the Atlantic.

At this, I managed the pilot site licence initiative, which in essence is what became Jisc Collections as it is today; it was about ensuring ongoing access as the world of journal archives became digital. The subsequent model licence, designed to provide a smooth transition from analogue, was, I think, a  world first, and the clauses added are aligned to the aspirations of the open access movement – as the world became born digital, open access was a logical next step. There were some real thought leaders in the sector at that time who made it their mission to ensure as many people as possible could have access to that publicly funded research, as a point of principle.

We are now in a born digital world, so we’re not looking at how to digitise paper journals, but new forms of research and learning where everything is online.

There are lots of opportunities here, but in order to properly interrogate the information available, you need the infrastructure, services and the standards that underpin this new way of working.

But this is where open science comes into its own, by being able to completely cut down transaction costs and make research available to the broadest audience possible, at the click of a button. There’s a transformation afoot in terms of the way research engages with society, the public, and internationally.

What are the key projects your team at Jisc are working on at present?

We have recently worked with a group of researchers from across disciplines to assess FAIR data and how it might be implemented. FAIR means making data findable, accessible, interoperable and re-useable, and is a key set of principles in many open science policies. So we have set about looking at what it means to try and identify how to make it a reality.

One of Jisc’s larger research and development projects is the research data shared service, this is a service that can ensure research data that underpins research findings is available to others and curated as part of the researchers workflow, but also aligned to university strategic interests. The service can also be used for open access papers or monographs.

What are the main challenges facing UK research and higher education when it comes to the open science agenda?

In the last few years, the changes in the research system have taken time but we have seen some good signs and the power of the newly joined up research system after the Higher Education and Research Bill does offer opportunities.

At the recent Westminster Forum, Sir Mark Walport set out the UKRI priorities around open science and he also talked about open metrics and indicators which was encouraging – these are really key areas to realise the potential of open science. 

We have to remember that academic kudos is driven by the existing system and it influences our thinking and judgements. It’s therefore good to see awareness of this issue in places such as the recent Turning the Tide event, hosted by HEFCE. Through working together, we can create open, transparent and sensitive indicators and contribute to a culture change in the research process; recognising good research, communicated in good ways.

Are there other countries whose footsteps we should follow when it comes to supporting open science research culture?

I’ve looked quite closely at initiatives around the world and I would say the UK is quite ahead of the game when it comes to funding policies, and our research councils, who do give information about how to make data available and reusable.

In Australia, they have some great guidance and infrastructure through initiatives such as the Australian National Data Service, but the funder policies are not in place. If there is somewhere we’re losing our edge, it’s in coordinating the wide variety of specialist research institutes across the UK. We’ve started to see countries such as The Netherlands, Germany and France taking a bolder stance when it comes to open science. 

In France there are rights to open access in their legislation, and in smaller countries such as Finland, there have been quite bold steps taken, too: the message has been that it’s absolutely critical for open science, that as a researcher you share your methods and data from your research. Some active leadership in the UK similar to these countries would be a good next step.

Is Brexit as big and bad as it seems for UK research?

Open science should form part of a successful, healthy, outward looking research culture. It has a role to play in showing the UK is open for collaboration; we undertake excellent research, come and collaborate with us.

There’s a real opportunity for UK universities to show leadership and make sure that the knowledge created within them is as impactful as possible. We’re beginning to see this as universities consider research dissemination and openness as a strategic priority – for example University College London and its recent new press launch.

Of course, there are understandable concerns about research funding being impacted, and there are challenges in terms of initiatives such as the European Open Science Cloud (EOSC) – designed to provide the infrastructure to make it easy to carry out open research – but the UK can still participate and work in an aligned way to EOSC, that is one reason why Jisc and others in the UK are active in EOSC, to ensure we can be joined-up. It would be an awful mistake to look inwardly and rest on our laurels, we need to make sure we’re engaged in the debate around policy, infrastructure and research culture.

Finally, if you were just starting your career in the research sector, what area would be grabbing your attention?

The opportunities of cross-disciplinary working, which open science facilitates, are exciting; working in a way that brings together different insights and research expertise to meet challenges such as environmental management. Certainly I think being engaged in technology, whether by working with experts in the area, or learning how to really use it, is part of a more open research culture, involving the public, government and engagement with industry.

Interview by Tim Gillett