The future is open to all – a perspective on OpenCon 2014

As part of our involvement in this year’s OpenCon we supported an early career researcher with their travel fees to the event. Jon Tennant was nominated by OpenCon to receive our travel grant, and as a big advocate of OA and already published in PeerJ we were delighted to support his attendance at OpenCon. We asked Jon to give us his thoughts on the event and who inspired him there. Here’s what he said:

One is rather inspired. OpenCon 2014 was a wonderful time bringing together 175 of the best minds in early career research and the ‘world of open’ to discuss how we make access to knowledge, data, and educational resources better for everyone. Over the weekend, we heard from some of the leading people making the strongest cases for openness. This was topped off with a day in Capitol Hill, hearing from and engaging with people who work in the policy domain. It wasn’t so much an event, as a milestone.

From left to right: Jack Andraka, John Wilbanks, Jon Tennant, Erin McKiernan


There are some people I wish to directly acknowledge from OpenCon as true leaders in the open community. Their talks, or discussions with them, were the most influential on me personally.

  • Erin McKiernan is where everyone will be in 5-10 years, right now. Her views and practices regarding open access are something that we could, and probably should, follow. She made a simple statement, which for many is why we were there: “Access to research is not an issue for academics, it’s an issue for everyone.” She has pledged to make her research completely open, to not review for closed access journals, to use blogs and pre-prints where possible, to not publish in Nature, Cell, or Science, and to refuse co-authorship if co-authors refuse to be open; an admirable stance to take.

  • Erin McKiernan and Jon Tennant displaying their support for PeerJ

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  • Ross Mounce is disruptive technology manifest. His work with Peter (see below) is truly revolutionary, in extracting data from multiple papers so that others may use them as a resource. A noble task indeed. I’m also happy to point out that Ross was one of the first people who introduced me to the issues of access to research, and it’s always great fun learning from him as a friend. Myself and Ross will be talking about open data on Nov 26th at the OpenCon satellite event in London.

  • Peter Murray-Rust is the embodiment of righteous fury, aimed directly at legacy publishers. He set my heart on fire (I actually got heart burn!) with a passionate speech regarding exactly how the practices of many publishers are directly inhibitive to science, and what he is doing to combat this (e.g., the content mine). We need more senior researchers like Peter, so that early career researchers can be validated by their actions.

  • Jack Andraka needs no introduction. His views on open access, the fundamental human rights to knowledge, and education should be spread to every young person on the planet. He is a wonderful role model that we can all learn from, and I can’t wait to see what the future holds for him – including getting his research to pass peer review 😉 A favourite quote from Jack was ‘If a Katie Perry song costs $0.99, and a research paper costs $30, is it any wonder why kids aren’t into science?’

  • Joe McArthur and David Carroll are, simply, awesome. They are the brains behind the Open Access Button, and examples of how it is possible to initiate change from any step of the academic pipeline. As undergraduates, the pair of them successfully developed and launched the Button, creating what is undoubtedly one of the most exciting and hopefully change-initiating projects currently in the world of publishing, with plenty of exciting ideas for the future.

These were the people and the talks that stood out for me, although each and every person who came up to that stage was incredible. Hearing from Patrick Brown about how he originally set up PLOS was rather inspirational. He, among others, emphasised the role of and need for a community vibe for ‘openness’. I loved his thoughts on academics ‘taking the power back’ from publishers, by being part of an entrepreneurial, subversive, and open community. Other inspirational talks include one by Heather Joseph of SPARC, on that our goal should be to set the default for academia to ‘open’, a goal echoed by every single person in that room.

The trend for openness on a global scale is increasing. Several examples include the RCUK policy on open access, a memorandum in the US stating that data from federally funded research must be made publicly available, the establishment of Open Access Nigeria, and the SciELO initiative, to name a few among thousands of progressive changes. Heather stated that in spite of this progress, it’s still important that we make changes to the current system, and keep the global trend going for the benefit of everyone. One of my favourite quotes from OpenCon has to be from Ahmed Ogunlaja “Open access wins all of the arguments all of the time.” 

However, one primary issue that still requires addressing within the open discussion regards careers, and the potential that dedication to OA publishing can lead to self-sabotage. Ironically, this claim often comes from those making decisions about others’ careers, and is based around the very real fact that we currently don’t have formal assessment criteria for academics that stretch far beyond the impact factor and perceived prestige of the journal in which an article was published. Clearly, this model is deeply flawed, and fortunately some policies such as that used by the REF in the UK explicitly forbids the use of the impact factor in assessments, instead relying on ‘impact case studies’. You can sign Initiatives like DORA, pledging to find alternative and better modes of assessing academics.

The reason why I’m discussing this is that it is a real part of the open discussion which needs to be developed. Whether it is based on evidence or not, this is still one of the primary causes of resistance to open access, in my experience. Victoria Stodden addressed this point in her talk, stating that it should not be expected of early career researchers to ‘martyr’ themselves for the sake of open scholarship, but instead it should be senior academics leading the way forward. What we need to strive towards is a career structure that rewards people for being open and sharing their research. This isn’t easy – it’s going to require a community development strategy combined with a top-down policy framework within which to manage it. At OpenCon, we saw many of the people who are going to make the change. We also saw so many success stories of open access ‘advocates’ remaining highly successful within academia or redeploying their skills elsewhere to try and invoke change. The change is going to happen – we need to make sure that it is community-driven, and remove the element of risk – whether you believe it exists or not – from the ‘anti-open’ frame of mind. One great example of this at OpenCon was the discussion of establishing an ‘O-index’ as a metric of how open a researcher is, and something I cannot wait to see be developed.

So I have a few recommendations or points for not just the ‘open access community’, but for everyone in academia, largely synthesised from numerous discussions and presentations at OpenCon:

  1. Help your colleagues. Scholarship is all about collaboration and the sharing of knowledge, and requires that we receive help from and help our colleagues. We are the informed community, and our friends and co-workers should be equally well informed about the issues with open access, impact factors, and all the others.

  2. If you have an idea, put it into practice. The community is there to help – you’re not alone.

  3. Don’t sacrifice your career. Unfortunately, many of the ideals we hold are incompatible with the reality of the current system. Peter Murray-Rust said it best, that for any revolution blood will be spilled. If you’re making someone angry, you’re probably doing it right. But when you’re ‘advocating’ for open access, maintain one simple rule: don’t be an idiot.

  4. The last thing I want the open community to become is it’s own worst enemy. For this, I think we need to be really strategic about what we say, exactly how we say it, be aware of who is listening, and consider the perspectives of those whom we are trying to engage with. For example, I really don’t think calling this progress the ‘open movement’ or that we are ‘open advocates’ does little more than alienate those who could otherwise be supportive.

Most importantly, have fun being part of the open community. All I saw at OpenCon were happy, energetic, smiling faces. It was great to be part of that, and makes me confident that what we’re all doing is right.

Final thanks to the organising committee, everyone involved to support the logistics of the conference, SPARC, the R2RC, PeerJ for their generous scholarship so I could attend, and every wonderful mind present. You all represent the future, and it is now.

Delegates thanking the organising committee at OpenCon 2014


Additional links:

OpenCon satellite event in London (free)

Science is Broken, Part 1, by Lorraine Chen

Twitter archive of #opencon2014

Generation Open: A diary of OpenCon 2014, by Ross Mounce

Blog post by Karin Purshouse, who left her scarf on Capitol Hill.

An ode to open access, by Dominique Morneau

Generation Open: sneak peek into science’s future at OpenCon 2014, by Hilda Bastian