Open notebooks galore: The Structural Genomics Consortium

Over 20 researchers will show their support for open science by sharing their data and blogging about their research projects.
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The Structural Genomics Consortium (SGC) is an organisation that supports research into medically important proteins. The consortium is a firm believer that open science practices are crucial for spreading scientific knowledge faster, and reducing unnecessary duplication of effort in research. Here Aled Edwards (the CEO of SGC), Rachel Harding (a postdoc at SGC Toronto) and Matthieu Schapira (a principal investigator at SGC Toronto) explain why they are encouraging more researchers to share their data in open notebooks.

Photographs of some of the researchers taking part in the open notebook project. Heng Zhang, Jolene Ho, Megha Abbey, Rachel Harding, Mandeep Mann, David Dilworth and Genna Luciani are based at the University of Toronto, Canada; Alfredo Picado, Carla Alamillo and Nirav Kapadia are based at theUniversity of North Carolina, USA; and Jong Fu Wong, Roslin Adamson and Elizabeth Brown are based at the University of Oxford, UK.
SGC scientists around the world are starting to post their work online in real time.

Image credit: Rachel Harding

What is SGC’s motivation for sharing research openly?

As scientists, many of us lead a privileged life. Our salaries and research are often funded by the public, and we have the freedom to pursue our own ideas – but our science is not shared as widely or as rapidly as it might be. It seems to us that faster and more open sharing of our science is fairer to those folks who pay their taxes to fund us, or who raise philanthropic funds to support our work. People do not participate in walk-a-thons because they want to help us to pad out our CVs; they want to support new scientific discoveries, faster.

And what’s the inspiration for the open notebook initiative?

In 2005, we started sharing data within SGC using open electronic lab books. Five years ago we also started weekly blogs to share our science more broadly. However, the real catalyst for change came in 2016 from Rachel, whose open notebook has enabled her to connect with both the general public and the Huntington’s disease research community. Thousands of people look at her blog regularly and it has catalysed more than a dozen new scientific collaborations for her. Through Twitter and other social media platforms, Rachel’s profile has been raised within the Huntington’s research community, allowing her to make her mark in this field as an early career researcher.

Inspired by this success, the SGC is launching an initiative that will see over 20 other postdocs share their work openly. It would be awesome if other researchers joined them.

How will your open notebook initiative work?

The researchers deposit their data to Zenodo and write an accompanying blog post – a format that can be easily and widely adopted by other researchers at negligible cost. All of these open notebooks can be found on http://opennotebook.thesgc.org. Researchers interested in joining our notebook community or starting their own are welcome to join our Slack channel (opennotebook.slack.com) as well as tag any Zenodo data entries with the ‘Open Notebooks’ community, which comprises our collection of open notebook data.

How do researchers normally react when you suggest they keep an open notebook?

Past the initial shock about the novelty of the idea, most quickly realise that sharing their work live, online, and in real time, has the potential to increase their network, generate discussions and help them to learn from others, as well as reducing redundancies and accelerate scientific progress. They also see it as an act of openness and even generosity. However, the next phase in this chain of thoughts is a sense of being overwhelmed: “I can’t do this because my collaborators won’t agree, my project is too hot or too sensitive and I will be scooped, this will take too much of my time…”

How do you encourage researchers to overcome those fears?

Most researchers work on more than one project, and can find one they are more comfortable sharing online. They should think about projects they work on where they have more control, where co-workers are more likely to embrace the concept. While concerns about being scooped or of being unable to publish because the data are already in the public domain are sometimes valid, there are also good counterexamples. For example, the SGC has had a long tradition of releasing structural data into the public domain before the work has been published. This has not stopped these publications appearing in even the highest profile journals.

Are there enough incentives to encourage researchers to share their data?

The metrics of success in science conspire against sharing, and there are risks to sharing our research in almost real-time. But we believe that these risks are balanced by the many advantages of sharing, including rapid access to new results, increased transparency and greater reproducibility, access to ‘negative’ results, and access to intermediate successes and iterative optimisation steps that are not traditionally shared with the wider scientific community.

In our opinion, it is really a matter of setting priorities. We think that forging better connections with the broader lay and scientific communities is worth the effort, and are convinced that the metrics of success will change over time to reflect this. In that regard, we are getting tremendous interest and support from our funders. Their involvement and encouragement is very helpful to the young scientists taking this on ­– especially this first cohort whose research is supported by charities (The Wellcome Trust), patient and disease foundations (The Brain Tumour Charity, FOP Action, Leukemia & Lymphoma Society Canada), government funding agencies (e.g. CIHR, Ontario MRIS, Genome Canada and NSERC in Canada) and philanthropy (Eshelman Institute for Innovation).

What advice do you have for early-career researchers who would like to start an open notebook?

Go for it! Academia is a competitive world but taking risks that help you stand out will create opportunities for your career; it certainly has for Rachel. Proactively building a research network through social media and other online channels will help you connect your research with those who matter most; the relevant patient groups, the general public (who are often funding our research), and the academic communities from whom you can learn and hopefully collaborate with.