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Imagining a Transformed Scientific Publication Landscape

Open Science is not a finish line, but rather a means to an end. An underlying goal behind the movement towards Open Science is to conduct and publish more reliable and thoroughly reported research. Increasing the transparency, reusability and connectivity of scientific outputs is a common desire shared among publishers and researchers, but progress can seem slow and implementation far from widespread. 

Akin to how scientific understanding is often achieved through incremental progress, system-wide changes toward Open Science will only be achieved through earnest collaboration among funders, institutions, publishers and researchers. Looking at both pragmatic solutions and the underlying ideals, we imagine changes to scientific publishing in the context of four fundamental functions that publishers should provide: dissemination, verification, recognition and community building. 

Dissemination

How can the future provide more usable, accessible and relevant dissemination? 

The term “research article” is largely used as a catch-all for published discoveries. A research article is typically consumed as a static PDF that’s sent to publishers after results have been accrued and conclusions drawn. Readers must wait until the study is complete and the associated paper published before they can access the methodology, which may have been finalized months or years prior. 

Breaking down the research article into more digestible and structured parts—or modules—can provide researchers with more opportunities to reuse and improve research. Incomplete reporting of methods in traditional articles can prevent research from being reused or reproduced. More opportunities to publish detailed and enhanced methods are the two article types coming soon to PLOS ONE: Lab Protocols and Study Protocols

Lab Protocols, developed in partnership with protocols.io, share the step-by-step instructions for verified methodologies and computational techniques. Utilizing the specialised features of protocols.io’s platform in conjunction with a peer-reviewed article on PLOS ONE that contextualizes the presented methodology, Lab Protocols will provide readers with the information needed to replicate a validated method in a precise and accessible format. Study Protocols are open for planned research studies, giving readers an opportunity to see design and analysis plans and helping reduce waste and bias in research. 

In the future, studies should be presented as a collection of interlinked research objects and associated metadata. Data, code, protocols, and other elements such as reagents can all be independently identified and verified, allowing for readers to more easily find and access the elements most relevant to them. 

Verification

How can widespread adoption of Open Science provide more reliable and reproducible research?

The ultimate test for the reporting and validity of a study is whether it can be fully reproduced by different researchers. The materials used, the steps of the methods and the experimental conditions must be precisely described for a study to be reproducible. Reproduction of previous research can be a jumping-off point for contemporary researchers that leads to new discoveries. In short, proper reporting helps advance the field and accelerate further discoveries. 

On platforms such as protocols.io, researchers can verify if published protocols work for them. Alongside participating researchers, publishers are important in the verification of publications by organising peer review, which can be customised for different research outputs. For Lab Protocols, PLOS will be organizing peer review of submitted manuscripts and content hosted on protocols.io: a small step toward extending the value publishers can offer in verifying the validity of research and improving trust in new research formats. 

Transparency enables verification. Preregistration enables interrogation of what was planned and what was carried out, and publishing peer reviews and preprints allow readers to view changes that occur during peer review. Direct links to deposited data and executable code gives an opportunity to work with the same material as the original authors. 

Having these elements—protocols, data, code, review history—available and linked to research articles reduces dependencies on the original authors of a study, promoting efficiency. A study that can be replicated with available and easy-to-find information allows the research to be usable far in the future. 

Recognition

How can reward and incentive systems be improved to provide researchers with credit for more of their research? 

The perceived success of a researcher has traditionally been dependent on the credit they receive through publications. Career advancement and other rewards can be determined by how research outputs are valued and recognized, and thus recognizing diverse and more granular research contributions beyond publications is essential for researchers to be rewarded for their work appropriately.

The CRediT—required by all PLOS authors and publications—offers a more nuanced view of authorship and contributorship. By providing new opportunities for peer-reviewed publications that reward critical but sometimes overlooked contributions, such as a methods development, publishers can provide opportunities for diverse elements of the research process to be better recognized. 

Peer-reviewed protocols give authors a formal publication that enables their methods to be cited, shared and used as a signal of accomplishment. Similar opportunities exist for sharing, describing and citing research datasets and software, which need to be more widely adopted by the wider scientific community, furthering chances for additional recognition. 

Publishers are just part of the solution. Institutions and funders can work with publishers to recognise and reward researchers for working transparently and reproducibly. Researchers can benefit personally from presenting their research in open, reusable formats as this can drive collaboration and reuse—and can consider Open Science principles when assessing studies by their peers. 

Community Building

How can Open Science provide more opportunities to collaborate and connect? 

The scientific community has made great progress in making Coronavirus research as Open as possible. With authors across disciplines depositing their articles as preprints and publishers making relevant research fully accessible, the benefits of Open Science have been made even clearer. By connecting researchers through peer review and providing structures to make relevant research shareable and accessible without barriers, journals help researchers build and maintain their communities. The role journals have in supporting these communities will continue to evolve as innovative new ways for researchers to collaborate and connect develop.

If these sweeping changes have helped improve scientific discovery in a period of global need, they could be adopted in other areas of research. Comprehensive commitment to Open Science requires the full scientific community, as publishers alone cannot persuade such practices to be adopted. For research to be more efficiently disseminated, verified and credited, system-wide changes toward Open Access must be embraced across the scientific community.

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