Forum: Open Scholarship for Innovation

A Strategy for Innovation

By Randolph Hall    //    Volume 30,  Number 1   //    January/February 2022

Two decades ago, the president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Charles M. Vest, announced a bold initiative.

“OpenCourseWare” would make the materials for all of MIT’s courses “freely available on the internet over the next 10 years.”

Why would the fifth-ranked university in the United States offer its intellectual property—a core element of its excellence in science and engineering education—to the world for no charge? In Vest’s words, “OpenCourseWare combines two things: the traditional openness and outreach and democratizing influence of American education and the ability of the web to make vast amounts of information instantly available.”

MIT’s OpenCourseWare demonstrates how traditional university values, aligned with new technology, can catalyze educational innovation. Not only has OpenCourseWare thrived to this day, it has spawned a range of technology-enabled programs offering free access to premier course content, making higher education courses more available across a spectrum of incomes, communities, and countries.

Open Scholarship

Open scholarship is the idea that to advance knowledge, research results of all kinds should be openly shared as early as practical. Sharing includes the publications, data, software, and other resources, such as materials used in laboratory research. Open scholarship is the analogue to open courseware, applied to the research mission of colleges and universities rather than the educational mission.

Looking back, as the vice president of research for the University of Southern California (USC) for nearly 15 years, I was responsible for increasing the output and impact of the university’s research. To meet the challenge, I realized that the university needed to do more than hire faculty, construct buildings, or incentivize research. We needed to be innovative in the practices of research, and we needed to be strategic. Research publications had moved to digital from paper. Data sets were easier to find, share, and integrate among communities of scholars. Software was being produced collaboratively through open-software models. Projects had become more interdisciplinary as they took on larger societal challenges, such as security, climate change, and global health. The world was changing, and we needed to not just adapt but to lead.

Through an initiative coled with our Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism, we examined our policies, institutional support, and culture, with an eye toward creativity and collaboration. Would USC as an institution support nonconventional research products, something different than a traditional research publication enshrined in paper, perhaps interactive tools or moving images? Would USC also support research that crossed disciplinary boundaries or combined the talents of many faculty, staff, and students in teams? Digitization and the world wide web had opened possibilities for scholarship that had not existed even 10 years earlier, and the university needed to change.

For example, we looked at our tenure and promotion manual and saw how it emphasized “independence,” even though scholarly practices had evolved toward collaboration. USC’s emphasis changed to contributions. We saw how interdisciplinary research required institutional support, and formed a D.C.-based office to help faculty create large multiinvestigator proposals. We saw the importance of seed funding and developed internal support for initiating new research that was fundamentally novel and collaborative. In these ways, creativity and collaboration became USC’s precursor to openly sharing research, which is the strategy now called open scholarship.

Why Open Scholarship?

There are many reasons to pursue open scholarship. Research is more transparent and trusted because others can validate its quality, accuracy, and reproducibility. Collaboration is expedited by making data, methods, and tools available early in the discovery process. Open scholarship also promotes efficiency by rapidly informing others of promising avenues of research. It also democratizes research, thereby making it accessible to scholars and the public at large no matter who they are or where they are. Fundamentally, open scholarship helps college and universities become better at fulfilling their mission to produce and preserve knowledge and serve society.

Open scholarship has shown its worth during the COVID-19 pandemic during which scientists around the world have shared data that sped up the development of vaccines and informed public health organizations on life-saving interventions. Scientific journals also made COVID-19 peer-reviewed research freely available as open access publications. Separate from pandemic-related research, communities of scientists have banded together to form shared data repositories for medical images, genetics, and astronomical studies, to name just a few examples. These collective efforts toward solving big societal problems have made it possible for scientists to conduct research efficiently from comprehensive data sets drawn from many sources.

Open scholarship is also increasingly mandated by the government agencies and foundations that sponsor research. The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy has written guidelines for open science and the National Institutes of Health has expanded data sharing and management requirements for grantees. Simply put, if colleges and universities do not prepare for open scholarship, new rules may negatively impact their ability to receive sponsored research funding.

The coming mandates, while critical, should not be the driver for open scholarship. MIT did not establish OpenCourseWare because they were required to do so. OpenCourseWare helped fulfill the institutional mission to widen and democratize access. Open scholarship takes the principles underlying OpenCourseWare into the research mission of universities.

Innovation in Higher Education

Open scholarship demands transformation, not so much in the subjects of research but in how colleges and universities conduct research. Through my own research, I have studied how university culture and strategy promote, or inhibit, innovation. I have found that university strategic plans increasingly profess goals for change, emphasizing innovation, transformation, or entrepreneurship, yet “change” is often expressed in the abstract, not toward tangible or novel results, but simply toward the idea of change. Innovation is often stated as a strategy for economic development through companies, commercialization, or startups, rather than fundamental improvements in how education is delivered or how the university is managed. In my surveys, university innovators, both faculty and students, are concerned that their own institutions are risk adverse, or unwilling to try new things that other universities have not already tried.

I have found that higher education suffers from a split personality. On one hand, most institutions prioritize positive change for their communities and students, both aspects of what I call “outside innovation.” On the other hand, institutions often stumble with change from within, what I call “inside innovation,” due to slow and distributed decision processes, vested interests, and an inadequate vision for where change is heading. To the degree that inside innovation is pursued, it is treated as a separate track than outside innovation, led by different people with disconnected aims, and not by the faculty and students praised by the university as innovators.

Open scholarship offers an avenue that unites inside innovation with outside innovation, yet is not elevated in university strategic plans. Open scholarship improves university practices while increasing higher education’s impact through the scholarship it produces. It is also much more than an idea: it is a tangible demonstration of innovation.

Steps for Supporting Open Scholarship

Open scholarship entails a strategic shift in how research is conducted in colleges and universities. It requires action on the part of university administration, working in concert with faculty, sponsors, and disciplinary communities, in three areas: (1) policies, (2) services and training, and (3) infrastructure. Here are some of the key questions to address:

  • Are digital assets managed according to the principles called “FAIR”: findable, accessible, interoperable, and reusable?
  • Do the metrics assessing faculty performance incentivize open dissemination, and do they value collaboration?
  • Is intellectual property managed in a way that values the impact resulting from sharing?
  • Do information protection policies value freely sharing research products while protecting privacy and confidentiality?
  • Are Creative Commons and open software licenses used to enable reuse?
  • Do services exist to help faculty and students curate and manage their data?
  • Is archival storage readily available for data, materials, specimens, and publications, and are searchable portals available to find and access research products?
  • Has the university created a way to finance faculty participation in open access publications for which authors may be required to pay publication fees?

Each of these questions requires careful consideration among college and university stakeholders. Taking intellectual property as an example, institutions typically own research data and patentable technology but not publications. Patents can generate institutional income that is shared with creators (faculty and students). Data are not normally commercialized, but may nevertheless require protection for confidentiality or privacy purposes. Publications in the form of books can produce income paid directly to authors, but journal publications do not generate income. In fact, many open access articles require a processing fee that, while substantially smaller than traditional publications requiring expensive library subscriptions, may stretch research budgets of individual faculty. Intellectual property policies require synergy, balancing economic, and academic freedom as well as impact derived from broadened access.

Alignment

The challenge for achieving open scholarship is aligning the various interests inside colleges and universities toward a common goal. Students and faculty innovate through novel forms of scholarship. Information technology stores, protects, and provides access for data, software, and publications. Libraries curate and educate for good information management practice. Academic affairs ensures that appraisal processes recognize new forms of scholarship, which do not look like traditional papers and books. And the institution’s research office needs to develop policies that promote high-quality research along with compliance with research sponsor requirements.

Many colleges and universities struggle with open scholarship because of the complexity of the task at hand spanning many parts of the institution. In the decentralized world of higher education, initiatives that require cooperation of many units can fail, particularly if no one has both the power and accountability to achieve success. Moreover, while open scholarship can give colleges and universities a distinct advantage, it may be forgotten as units respond to their individual priorities instead of a common goal. For all of these reasons, alignment toward open scholarship depends on presidential leadership, guided by a vision endorsed by trustees.

The National Academies Roundtable

The National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM)—the nation’s collective scientific academy—began through an act of Congress signed by President Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War. In 2019, NASEM created the Roundtable on Aligning Incentives for Open Science to “convene critical stakeholders from universities, funding agencies, societies, foundations, and industry to discuss the effectiveness of current incentives for adopting Open Science practices.” Members include current and former presidents of universities, foundations, and associations as well as scientific leaders from a range of organizations. Within the roundtable, we have discussed and debated ways to achieve greater impact in research programs through alignment of expectations for open scholarship among researchers, research sponsors, publishers, and scientific societies. Toward these ends, we have concluded that university presidents are critical to success.

Through a committee that I chaired, the roundtable developed a succinct guide to supporting open scholarship for presidents and provosts, outlining the role of university leadership in developing and executing a strategy for open sharing of research products. Using the guide as a springboard, we organized an open scholarship summit centered on a panel of four university presidents—Presidents Anderson (Trinity University), Artis (Benedict College), Crow (Arizona State University [ASU]), and Daniels (Johns Hopkins)—all members of the roundtable who have shown their commitment to open scholarship as a university strategy. The panelists personally invited 300 presidents, and their designees, to participate in the summit and to appoint a campus leader for open scholarship.

In the summit, President Crow shared ASU’s work to utilize open scholarship to transcend silos toward addressing grand challenges, such as climate change, and to improve communication among disciplines. President Artis described Benedict College’s strategy to advance knowledge and access capabilities beyond a small campus. President Anderson explained how Trinity University is overcoming incentive structures that emphasize individual achievement to recognize collective contributions.

The guide and summit are the kernel for a new community of practice among college and university leaders to advance open scholarship. Engagement has three core components: presidential commitment, campus engagement, and collaboration among participants. For presidents, the expectations are to elevate open incentives inside their institutions, designate high-level representative to coordinate work on campus, meet regularly with the representative and on-campus community, and build a time line for implementation of a campus open research strategy.

The new open scholarship community provides a way for colleges and universities to share practices that strategically align faculty and administration to advance open research practices, collectively improving research for societal benefit. All colleges and universities are invited to join the community of practice.

Conclusion

Institutional change is not easy, but change is achievable. Open scholarship is an innovation that will make research more trusted, impactful, and accessible. It is an innovation that has been made possible by technology to digitize, archive, access, and share research products on a global scale. Most importantly, open scholarship aligns with traditional higher education missions. In the words of Johns Hopkins University President Ron Daniels, “Greater transparency in the production and publication of research could play an important role in bridging the widening gulf between experts and the public.”

OpenCourseWare at MIT was also motivated by traditional higher education values: openness, outreach, and democracy. These same values apply to university scholarship. Although it may seem counterintuitive to give away intellectual property, MIT has shown that colleges and universities will not suffer for their generosity, and they will not suffer for taking risks guided by a vision of innovation. Open scholarship is an opportunity for colleges and universities to unite inside innovation with outside innovation, achieving change in how we do research so that research better serves society.

Author’s note: For more information on the community of practice, contact Tom Arrison at tarrison@nas.edu.

Randolph Hall is the Dean’s Professor of Industrial and Systems Engineering and the director of the Center for Risk and Economic Analysis of Threats and Emergencies (CREATE) at the University of Southern California. He is the author of the upcoming book Breaking Tradition: Trust and Innovation in the American University, to be published by MIT Press.

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