Episode #43: Interview with Jon Tennant about Open Science

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Jon Tennant

In this episode, Johanna Havemann will talk with an expert in scholarly communication and publishing Jon Tennant.

He will tell us why he has decided to join the Open Science community, what are the main challenges on the way to alter the traditional publishing system, and share his tips how to contribute to the open access culture being a PhD student or a young researcher.

Jon finished his award-winning PhD at Imperial College London in 2017, where, as a paleontologist, he studied the evolution of dinosaurs, crocodiles, and other animals. For the last 7 years or so, he has been a fervent challenger of the status quo in scholarly communication and publishing and became the Communications Director of ScienceOpen for two years in 2015. Now, he is independent in order to continue his dino-research and work on building an Open Science MOOC to help train the next generation of researchers in open practices. He has published papers on Open Access and Peer Review, is currently leading the development of the Foundations for Open Science Strategy document and is the founder of the digital publishing platform paleorXiv. Jon is also an ambassador for ASAPbio and the Center for Open Science, a scientific advisor for Guaana and ScienceMatters, a Mozilla Open Leadership mentor, and the co-runner of the Berlin Open Science meetup. He is also a freelance science communicator and consultant and has written a kids book “Excavate Dinosaurs”.

We spend billions and billions and billions and billions, perhaps even trillions, every year, on doing research. And then we spend billions and billions and billions and billions, locking that research away. That just does not make any sense. That is not democracy; that is not a benefit to society.

– Dr. Jon Tennant

Transcript

Johanna: My name is Joanna Haveman and this is a new episode of PhD career stories.Today we are happy to introduce you to Jon Tennant who finished his award-winning PhD at Imperial College London last year in 2017. Within the discipline of paleontology he studied the evolution of dinosaurs, crocodiles, and other related animals. For the last seven years, he has been a fervent challenger of the status quo in scholarly communication and publishing. Starting in 2015, over two years, he acted as a communications director of Science Open, based in Berlin. Today he continues his dino research and works on building an open science vlog to help train the next generation of researchers in open practices. Jon’s publications include papers on open access and peer review and he is currently leading the development of the foundations for Open Science Strategy Document. But let us hear more from Jon himself.

Johanna: Welcome Jon!

Jon: Thank you for having me on here, finally. It is great to be able to speak on your podcast, so hi everyone who is listening! My name is Jon and as you can tell from my accent I am English. I currently live in Berlin, as Jo said, where I am the Communications Director at Science Open. But it has not always been that way. I actually followed a fairly traditional course through university, starting of my life as a geologist in Manchester. After that, I made a fairly treacherous switch to the life sciences and did a biology masters and then spent three years living in London doing a PhD where I was a paleontologist. So if you have any questions or queries about dinosaurs or Ross from Friends, please feel free to send them my way.

Johanna: We first met through the open science community in Berlin which I think is like 600 people who are in the community, and then there are regular gatherings. But to introduce yourself to our listeners, what got you interested in Open Science in the first place and why is it now such an important topic for you?

Jon: That is a really good question and it goes quite some time. I think it sort of helps to explain what open science and open access are just for our listeners who might not be aware of these things. So open access, in short, is just ensuring that every single person on the planet has access to your published research. And open science is more of opening a process behind it so I think it is like code and the data and the peer reviews. All about these things are all about the democratization of science and when I first heard about them it clicked very rapidly for me because open science really is embedded in principles of equality and fairness and sharing and these are the sort things I kind of dedicate my life to, on a daily basis.

I remember the first time I ever heard about it. It was at a meeting with Ross Mounce who was a paleontologist at the time and it was maybe… seven years ago now. And it was in a pub, like most things happen in the UK and I was just a master student at the time. And Ross said to me, he said: “Well, you know, are you going to publish your thesis on open access?” And I was, like “What on earth is open access?”.

And then he sort of just explained to me how the way the current publishing system works and in fact we have university libraries and other institutions pay millions and millions and millions and millions and millions of pounds and euros and dollars every year to subscribe to the research which we produce . And that also means, for those who do not have access to a university library or do not have that substantial personal amount of cash do not have access to research.

And that just did not make sense to me. Like, why do we have this entire global system of mostly taxpayer-funded research which then those same taxpayers do not have any access to? So, when Ross described this to me I was sort of just shocked, you know, and I realised my own privilege, so when I was at Manchester [University] and the Imperial College in the UK and I had always had mostly sufficient access to research which I needed to do my own research and my own education.

And I realised as well that, you know, paywalls and the sort of inequalities which I had encountered already during my undergraduate…  I remembered when I was trying to access papers through JStor or Science Direct, these big publishing platforms. Whenever I accounted a paywall and did not have institutional access I just sort of thought that was the norm and would ignore it like “ok, that is just the system”, it sort of brought back a couple of memories, this chat with Ross, you know, even the fact, you know, that I was in an extremely privileged institute in a welfare country. The normality of the lack or resources that I needed to do my research just never really occurred to me, I just sort of expected that “that is the way things are”.

And I think a lot of other people are sort of feeling the same way too, or if they do encounter issues they just go pass them, or they do not actually realise it. So, I remember talking to some colleagues I had during my PhD and I was saying, you know, trying to describe open access to them and the importance of why the public access to your research. And they were saying absurd things, like “But I have access to all the research I need, why do I need to make it open access?” I mean, you have to teach people what empathy is and that not everything revolves around them. And it was often quite infuriating that researchers often did not seem to care about this. You know, what is the point really in doing research if no one has access to it? It just seems crazy. It is like, “why would you build a car and then let no one drive it”?

That was, like seven years ago now, and the more I have sort of learned about open access and the scholarly publishing ecosystem and science communication as well and as well science policy and all of these related factors, the more I sort of began to understand that there was a lot wrong with the present system. So, you know, this is just, like, a general overview; we spend billions and billions and billions and billions, perhaps even trillions, every year, on doing research. And then we spend billions and billions and billions and billions, locking that research away. And that just not make any sense. That is not democracy; that is not a benefit to society. And then you get bewildered when people do not understand basic science. And it makes sense, because we have this system that is privatized and closed and, from a moral perspective, we should not support it. We should try and change it, and that is where open access comes in.

It is about giving people access to the research that they deserve. I think, actually in the American, sorry, in the US declaration of human rights, access the outpoints of scientific research, it is one of the key points in that [declaration]. It is amazing how deep this of understanding of public access science goes, back in our history and how little we actually do to make it a reality. And, yeah, the more I learned, the more I talked about it with my colleagues, the more I listened to the views and the visions and the experiences of other people from all around the world from a whole range of different backgrounds, the more it sort of, firstly cemented my belief that open science, and the principles of it, are far more fundamental than science itself.

And also, it sort of helped me to figure out ways and solutions to help combat some of these issues that we have and that is ultimately how I ended up in Berlin and at Science Open and now as a company we spend almost every minute that we are awake at work, trying to teach researchers how to be more open with their science, through things like open peer review and sharing and open access. And, yeah, it is a great place to be at the moment. And I am ridiculously thankful that we have institutions like the Max Planck Institute, where we are at the moment, and universities and thought leaders and some really great scientists, and there is an enormous global community of researchers who are really trying to push open access forward and practice what they preach and to actually return to, like, these principles of just good democratic, equal access to knowledge.

Johanna: Looking into open access history, the discussion has been going on for the last two or three decades, or longer? And looking back to the most recent ten or fifteen years, my impression is that it only has gotten worse, since. Why do you think that “now is the time” to really change the paradigm?

Joe: I think that is a really good question, and I think it also incredibly important to understand the history of scholarly publishing and the development of the web. So, the entire reason why the web, as we currently know it, was built, was by researchers based in CERN, to freely and instantly share research and data with their colleagues. That is the fundamental reason why the web was built and it just amazes me so much that we still have not actually achieved that target. You know, the reason why it was built was to share knowledge freely and we have somehow failed to do that. We have so many great initiatives but they seem to be sort of, like, plasters on a festering wound. You know, we have this great technology which we could be using to communicate research across the world. Anyone with an internet connection. And yet we are failing them. We are letting down policy makers, doctors, you know, advocates, anyone who is involved in almost any aspect of life which relies on somewhere of science, we are fundamentally letting down.

And it is kind of unusual how we have reached that state. So, open access, the turn itself was developed in Budapest, back in 2001. And when it first came about, people said, that open access was the solution to all the issues with access which we have in scholarly publishing. And when it started to become, like a real thing, what we saw were a lot of learned societies and commercial publishers with vested interests in maintaining the current system of paywall research, campaigning very vigorously against open access.

We saw threats to open access advocates, we saw excessive lobbying, all of this is public information which you can see, and we saw basically, a slandering almost, of what open access was. So we would have members of scholarly publishers saying that open access was low quality research that it would lead to public misinformation and public misunderstanding of science. It would lead to fake news being proliferated and all of this general things, which were lies. But that was just, you know, just the way things go and if you have powerful interests which you have invested in maintaining a particular system, then they will do everything which they can to fight that. Or fight for the maintenance of that system, and that was what we saw.

I guess what…  we saw the real open access revolution, and I can be biased because I am in the UK, from the UK side, but I think I actually saw it sparked in the UK when the UK research councils almost a decade ago now started talking about maintaining a public access to research from all research which they fund. And that was when it actually, sort of, entered the nationwide political arena. And it was extremely interesting, because that meant we had a lot of research institutes all of a sudden becoming very, very interested in this , and that had a big global impact.

And what we saw was the exponential increase in research about open access, about policies being developed in different ways, about this, but through all of that we had a lot of politics involved. And when you live in a democracy you have businesses which basically have the same political input, and sometimes more, as other who act in the public interest, which is perfectly okay if that is politics. But in the way open access was developed it was lobbied against very vigorously again by commercial publishers to maintain the sustainability of the business side of things. And that was before the actual reason for open access in the first place so not only open access and communication and research also became secondary to maintaining the excessively high profits to some scholarly publishers, which often around 40 percent around twice that of big oil and big tech companies like Apple and Rio Tinto, and that was incredible.

And what happened was, you know, people can use whatever sort of term they want, but it was almost like, sort of, hijacking of the development of these policies and particularly in the UK we saw an extremely strong opponent for open access publishing becoming increasingly weakened. And that, I mean, it became more about maintaining the commercial aspects of scholarly publishing than providing access to research. And it was just kind of unusual why that happened. There are many reasons why this could have been, for example, a lack of interest from researchers, high-level lobbying from commercial groups, having a government which had a very strong business influence, and I feel like a lot of open science or open access, a lot of the people of the community became extremely disheartened as we saw this repeating weakening of open access happening.

Because we were all there, pushing for our principles and trying to make noise about the reasons for open access and they just did not seem to be heard at the level which they needed to be. That is one way of looking at it anyway. Or alternatively, you could see the fact that we are seeing, still an increasing rate of open access publication every year to be a good thing. It really depends on what you wanted open access to achieve and how you view the current status. But those are the facts; open access is increasing and that is a good thing, but if you wanted open access to disrupt the scholarly publishing industry, that is not happening and in fact that the industry is blooming because they have found a way to monetize open access to article processing charges and hybrid open access and embargo periods. All things which open access was never designed for in the first place but are now a part of the incredibly complex ecosystem.

Johanna: Being aware of the importance of open access for the scientific community, how did it actually influence your PhD?

Jon: So… That is another very good question. It influenced it in several different ways. So, I sort of pledged at the beginning of my PhD that all of the research I conducted would be public access in the end. All data, all code and all research papers. Doing this was actually for me, it was somewhat quite easy, and that was because of the aforementioned things that I mentioned about open access in the UK. And that we injected… Or, the UK government, injected a significant amount of cash into the research environment to cover the costs of open access. And that, at Imperial College, we were extremely fortunate to have a rather large fund so that we could basically publish almost everywhere we want and irrespectively the cost.

So, through that very fortunate position and a very strongly acknowledged position of privilege, I was able to publish… 14 papers, now at the end of my PhD. All of then are open access and all funded through my research fund, through the Research Council of UK. And the result of that was that I actually won our research departments award for research excellence which was quite a shock to me, so…

And the reason for this is that, when I first started publishing and communicating my work, I received all sorts of incredible negative feedback from colleges of all sorts. So, I had professors saying that my PLOS ONE paper was not even peer reviewed and that it was basically no different than a blog post. And I had someone commenting what I had published with PeerJ, that because of it did not have an impact factor yet, it did not count. And, you know, I was almost mocked in some cases and by supporting open access and talking about it publically, I was also threatened quite a bit. You know, I received emails, saying that if I continued to support open access then I would basically never be hireable again in the UK. And I know that many of my friends and colleagues have been disillusioned by this sort of behaviour from within the academy about whether they should first publish open access, or support it. Or even want to continue in an environment in which that sort of activity is suppressed. And it was kind of unusual, you know, I felt very uneasy for a very long time about supporting open access and open science.

And that was sort of when I came across the OpenCon community and that helped me to realise that I was not alone in how I felt about these things and in fact there is an enormous global network of people out there, all campaigning for the very same reasons I am. They all care about these principles of freedom and equality and fairness in science. And it was a huge moral support for me there, and I went on to on publish papers about open access and keep writing about my work and to share my data openly, and thankfully, I am not saying this was a consequence of any of my activities or anything, but the paleontology community seems to me now, to be one of the most successful research communities in the world, adapting to various open science practices. So almost all data that we generate now is publicly available and openly licensed. Researchers are adopting open access publishing at an incredibly fast rate because many of them just, you know, they see the principles there, like, we they believe that actually people do deserve access to our research. Progress has been slow, like the last five or six years, but it is progress and it has been fantastic to watch as people, sort of, develop their own understanding of these things. And you talk with them and engage with people about their concerns, and a lot of people in particular, I feel, and especially myself, were afraid of doing stuff that would compromise our careers, because science is incredibly competitive and open access was seen like a threat to that or a way of diminishing the value of your research.

So, what I hope to do by demonstrating that you could achieve some form of research excellence and be open was that others could do the same. And, again, I do not want to attribute anything to me, I am not like a superior or anything, but we are seeing a lot of other people doing the same thing now, and we have PhD students fearlessly publishing open access in new journals and communicating their work in different ways, and it is beautiful and I really think the  paleontology community, for one reason or another, has really come together over these last five or six years and have become extremely open science, which is fantastic.

Johanna: Okay, so to conclude, could you recommend to our listeners just a few steps how they can engage in open access as young and aspiring scientists or during their PhD what is a really simple measure to apply?

Jon: So, I think that that is a very important question again, because you know, no one wants a young researcher just entering, just beginning their career, to risk that or compromise it in any way. And I think these are really important discussions that we need to have and sadly there does not seem to be, sort of, any magic bullet solution. The advice that I would give to researchers and those doing their PhDs, is to do some research about the options available to them. Many universities now, for example, have funds that are easy to apply for, to publish open access. Many of them have institutional repositories where you can also publish open access for free. Understanding the options available to you, and often the potential risks that might be associated with them, makes it very easy to talk to your colleagues and your supervisor about these things.

Because often, if you just talk it out, you realise that, you know, the consequences of these things are actually not negative in the slightest, but incredibly positive. For example the fact that generally, open access increases your citation count, your media attention and just general attention for your research. And these are all really good things for how to build your profile, as a researcher. I think, yeah, so the two bits of advice I would give would be, if you feel uneasy about open access, do some research about it! A lot of options are available to you, and then have a chat with your supervisor, if they have concerns, talk it out. You know, there is almost always a route to open access, you just have to know what those routes are, available to you. It is our job as researchers to be able to understand these things, it is our job communicate science as broadly as possible. You reconcile them both through open access, most in a risk-free way, simply by doing a little way of research. And that is the best of advice I could give.

Johanna: Excellent! Thank you.

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