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Open science has roots in the synthetic biology community, but we can do better


It’s Open Access Week! Openness is a very important aspect of synthetic biology, but is the community doing enough to embrace and expand the concept?


An article from John Ioannidis, published in 2005, asks and explores a much-dreaded question: Why most published research findings are false? A 2016 survey of scientists revealed that 90% of the participants believed there is a slight or a serious reproducibility crisis. The fields of psychology and cancer research seem to be particularly affected. Irreproducible research undermines public trust in science, has a significant financial cost, and implies scientific misconduct.


Open science practices is a way to counter the reproducibility practices. By being open and transparent, research studies can be scrutinized and revisited to correct honest oversights, while discouraging outright fraud. There is a push from scientists and other stakeholders to change the norms on how research is reported: share raw data and the code of statistical analysis, use registered reports, publish preprints, and perform replication studies. But Open Science goes beyond just making information freely available. It is a way of making research communication much easier.


Synthetic biology has a remarkable connection with open science. The idea of engineering biological circuits and using biological parts essentially as Lego bricks requires making the components available. The establishment of genetic part registries, such as the iGEM registry and Addgene, was a needed step. Taking things further, the openMTA initiative plans to remove the limitations usual Material Transfer Agreements impose. Signatories of the openMTA – academic institutions, companies, community labs, and individuals – pledge to share genetic resources without restrictions on redistribution or commercial use.


iGEM in particular fosters an open science mentality. And as it introduces many students to what synthetic biology is, it makes a lasting impression. All the material generated in the competition are available under a creative commons license. The teams are asked to collaborate and be transparent about their experimental procedures.  Synbio education initiatives are doing a terrific job in familiarizing students and teachers with open science concepts as an essential part of the scientific discipline.


The synthetic biology community is really primed for open science, but there are still challenges that halt the full adoption of openness. Synthetic biology research is usually interdisciplinary. As best practices within a field of research can’t be universal, the adoption of uniform open science guidelines is problematic. But better resource sharing and constant communication is the only way to build bridges between different ways of thinking.


Another challenge is the lack of standardization within the synthetic biology field. Standards adoption is under constant debate within the community, due to its complexity. There are several procedures, parts, and even representations in synthetic biology that could in theory be standardized. However, there is no consensus on which standards (if any) should be used. Legacy standards (e.g. in DNA assembly) are not necessarily helpful, as they reduce experimental flexibility and may have become obsolete. But if information and physical parts do not follow certain specifications, they are difficult to share in a meaningful and beneficial way.


The elephant in the room is also the topic of this year’s Open Access Week: Open for Whom? Equity in Open Knowledge. The vast majority of synthetic biology research, companies, and iGEM teams come from Europe and North America. Women are underrepresented too. Science cannot be open if it is restricted, and the openness guidelines cannot be decided by the privileged few. Everyone, regardless of any type of background should shape the way science is shared.

Synthetic biology has similar challenges to most other scientific disciplines when it comes to open access of research articles, adoption of preprints, and sharing of protocols and raw data. I will not expand these topics here, but I should note that removing communication boundaries is a guaranteed way to advance science and reduce the waste of resources in research.


The lack of open practices as a norm puzzles me. Both the researchers who share the data and the whole community clearly benefit. Even in cases where open practices are not the best option (e.g. in anonymized data sets) we can make exceptions. We need a mentality shift. Researchers should stop seeing their colleagues as competitors rather than collaborators. We should use research to benefit the community and the whole society, not serve our own agendas. Synthetic biology wouldn’t exist at its current shape without its sharing mentality. We’re doing good, but we can always do better!

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