Open science and public engagement

Next week I am taking part in a panel alongside some excellent contributers at the Science in Public conference in Cardiff. I will be joined by Neil Jacobs, Melanie Smallman and Paul Manners, and our topic is a fascinating one: what is the relationship between open research practices and public engagement with research.

On one level the connection seems obvious. The aim of open science and research is to make the products and processes of research available to whoever wants to access them, and this, of course, includes citizens. But is the connection really that obvious.

When content is open access, anyone can make use of that content, and this is often stated as an aim of open science. The benefits related to this include those that flow from companies or individuals being able to innovate on the basis of scholarly knowledge. In addition it is argued that citizens might be better able to participate in society if they can access the knowledge that comes from scholarly inquiry. Although this aim is often stated the evidence that these benefits actually happen is harder to come by. There is the well used story of Jack Andraka, but systematic inquiries into public benefits from open research have not, to my knowledge, been carried out.

As well as a lack of evidence of benefits, there is also a potential issue about open access in that it doesn't necessarily meet the needs of all potential audiences. For example, are open access publications really accessible to citizens because of the language and format that are used? Are different forms of publication necessary to achieve effective communication with diverse audiences?

Another aspect of open science is citizen science, which also aims to engage citizens more in carrying out research. This has the potential to contribute to public engagement, but many of the examples reduce citizens to relatively unengaged collectors of data or analysers of images. Examples that truly bring citizens into the shaping of research questions are much rarer. That's not to say projects that do this don't exist, with the Parenting Science Gang being an excellent example, but citizen science is often framed from as a narrower activity.

Finally, public engagement is about more than effective communication and dissemination of research. It also concerns more two-way forms of engagement, where citizens are fully drawn into and play a part in shaping research agendas. There is a risk that the selection of open practices that are currently labelled as open science and research are seen to be sufficient for public and citizen engagement. In fact, while many of the open science practices are important for, and can make a contribution to engaged research, they are not enough on their own. There is a missing aspect to openness, being open to influence, that needs to be emphasised more in order to bridge the worlds of open science and public engagement.

We have a number of diverse perspectives on the panel, and it promises to be a great discussion.