ZBW MediaTalk

Although open science is currently attracting a lot of attention and the opening up of research is generally considered as an appropriate and trend-setting model for a scientific system of the future, it can sometimes be quite difficult to actually put the principles of open science into practise. The reasons for this are varied. Sometimes it is simply not worth doing for an academic career, or the obstacles still loom too large. There are, however, also researchers who, as pioneers, simply give open research a try to see what it’s like and so commit themselves to promoting the acceptance and promotion of open science principles.

Christian Heise is just such a pioneer. His doctoral thesis, which he recently completed at the Centre for Digital Cultures (Leuphana University in Lüneburg), not only addresses the topic of open science, but its entire creation process was designed to be as open as possible. This included the current state of his written work being accessible for viewing at any time.

He describes his experiences to us below:

What was the topic of your doctoral thesis?

The objective of the thesis was the presentation, analysis and experimental treatment of the assumptions and definitions relating to open scientific discovery processes. One of my assumptions was that free access to the final scientific results (open access) marks a transition phase which can result in the entire scientific discovery process (open science) opening up.

For this purpose, I looked into the historical development of scholarly communication and its digitisation and then examined the interest that scientists themselves have in this development as well as their behaviour in practice. I also took a look at the drivers and blockers in this process of change.

How did you come up with the idea of writing the thesis openly?

Alongside the theoretical examination and a survey, I also wanted to take a practical approach to the topic as much as possible. My scientific approach was not intended to be the result of pure intellectual activity alone, but also a result of practical actions.

In the course of writing the thesis, I wanted to confront my presuppositions with the practical circumstances in everyday scientific life and investigate them in more detail in a kind of experiment using myself. I wanted to understand how much work and what sort of obstacles actually result from the opening up of formal communication for scientists.

How did you organise the process of the open doctoral thesis?

The current state of my thesis was to be reflected by the version available. The most current draft version of the thesis could be viewed on the Internet from the very beginning. I also documented my approach in a blog and also provided all the data relating to my thesis for free downloading right after collection and anonymization. The complete thesis, including all annexes and data, was published under an open licence (CC-BY-SA) for this purpose.

What sort of tools/applications/social networks did you make use of?

I gave many applications a try. A brief overview can also be found in my thesis. Unfortunately, I repeatedly had to struggle with technical challenges. Without basic programming knowledge, I would not have been capable of meeting my own expectations for writing the doctoral thesis openly (including quotation management, version control, data visualisations, etc.).

For example, my doctoral thesis was soon too long for GoogleDocs, and even professional scientific writing platforms such as authorea.com were quickly overwhelmed by the length of the text and the presentation of all the data. In the end, I needed to come up with my own solution. I built it up over the course of the thesis, expanding it according to my own needs. It was based on other existing services (such as GitHub), applications (such as Datawrapper), and standards (LaTeX).

The options available for digital scientific publishing have nevertheless greatly improved since I began my thesis. Especially in the last two years, a number of tools and applications have been developed and published that considerably facilitate the digital publication of scientific content.

What surprised you?

It was long unclear whether this open creation was legal in the first place and consistent with doctorate regulations. For example, a doctoral thesis must not yet have been published by the time of submission; “luckily” the Internet was not yet formally recognised as a place of publication for scientific communication in my case.

I was only able to deal with these and other legal challenges relating to compatibility with the process of writing a doctoral thesis (interpreted as the printing of the final publication) by getting a written derogation from the doctoral committee following quite a long period of examination by my university. I was surprised by how long this took.

Do you think that writing your doctoral thesis openly has you brought more advantages or more disadvantages?

If you compare the usual scientific approach to the open creation process of my thesis, working on the local computer (even given the use of Internet-based services) in a closed environment is still a lot easier than writing a thesis publicly – this is definitely (still) a blatant disadvantage. This mainly has to do with the familiar and established structural, technical and legal environments for doing academic work, most of which are incompatible with the open presentation and distribution of content. As I see it, the open approach to writing has not yet presented any fundamental advantages or intractable obstacles to the publishing scientist.

Overall, the open approach to writing was advantageous for me personally. The open approach to writing the doctoral thesis attracted particular attention in my immediate environment and I received a lot of encouragement and emotional support. Although this hardly had any effect on the content, there was an increase in the number of regular inquiries about the current state of progress on the thesis. The social pressure to finish the thesis and the support helped me a lot. Looking back, I would probably not have completed the thesis without this support.

Another advantage: The scope of this work and the corresponding data already exceeds that of theses that were written in a closed environment. Further experiments with open research work are nevertheless necessary in order to evaluate what sort of further fundamental benefits and further challenges, in addition to those mentioned in the thesis, the opening of communication has in store for science and the public.

I remain firmly convinced that opening up almost all scientific knowledge processes is desirable, feasible and useful.

Would you take the same approach again?

Yes, definitely.

What would recommend to someone who is thinking of doing so?

The aim of my thesis was to draw concrete recommendations for action from the experiences I gained during the open writing of scientific (qualification) work.

I have drawn 10 recommendations that may be helpful for writing open scientific work. A very personal piece of advice: have no fear of openness.

Author: Christian Heise is a political scientist in the final stages of his PhD on Open Science at the Centre for Digital Cultures (Leuphana University in Lüneburg) and is currently working as a manager at Google Digital News Initiative (DNI) Innovation Fund as well as teaching a” Digital Media” course at Leuphana University/Hamburg Media School. Previously, he was a research associate at Hybrid Publishing Lab of Leuphana University, as well as a manager at Deutsche Presse Agentur and ZEIT ONLINE. In addition to his volunteer work as the Chairman of the Open Knowledge Foundation Germany he is also a founding board member of Förderverein für freie Netzwerke e.V..

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