• Kieran Fenby-Hulse

Opening up research requires a rethink of the impact agenda

It is impossible to argue against open research. Publicly funded research should be accessible to those who need it, including those working in countries where journal pricing is prohibitive. Small businesses and charities should have access to the latest findings, data and methods. And researchers should be able to replicate and avoid duplicating past work, eliminate errors, and ensure that their work is of the highest quality and integrity.

But—there is always a but—I’m not convinced that all this is possible within the current research ecosystem.

The move to open research does not depend solely on the development of new business models for open access publishing. It also depends on how we understand the place where the knowledge economy, intellectual property, and research ethics and data management intersect.

Delivering economic and social benefit is one of UK Research and Innovation’s core missions. One feature of UKRI’s strategic prospectus released in May is the emphasis on supporting the government’s industrial strategy. Throughout the document, the term ‘R&D’ is used, where once there would simply have been research.

But alongside this drive for innovation and impact runs a drive for integrity and collaboration, and for open science, open data, and ensuring the benefits of UK research are, to quote the prospectus, “freely available to all”. In its recent endorsement of Plan S, a European-level strategy aimed at transforming scholarly publishing, UKRI has committed to making all the research it funds open access by 2020.

Both ambitions have been a feature of research policy documents for the past 10-15 years. Yet despite this long history, there has been little discussion about how openness can coexist with commercialisation and economic benefit.

How can one share research outcomes and data while also generating intellectual property and commercial applications? Is it always obvious when research should be closed and when it should be open; when it should be cooperative and collaborative and when it should be competitive and commercialised?

Researchers, particularly doctoral and early-career researchers, get little support in addressing these complex issues. Instead, they get mixed messages. Universities’ enterprise and innovation directorates encourage researchers to protect, value and sell their research. But researchers are also encouraged to think about open research, open-access publication and international development. This is complicated by the fact that impact case studies for the Research Excellence Framework are open to all types of impact, whether they are economic or social, national or international.

Researchers and, perhaps, institutions needs support with assessing, ethically, when to share and when to protect, and with understanding the value and limitations of choosing one over the other.

In practice, this isn’t a binary choice. There are no obvious or easy answers. Some disciplines, such as engineering and biotechnology, face particularly complex issues. In a culture of open, responsible research, what should one make of the claim that an eco-car or a new drug has generated huge profits?

Do economic benefits outweigh societal benefits, and how should researchers balance the two?

If we really want a research system that supports the industrial strategy and the economy, international collaboration and development, and provides the public with transparency and return on investment, we need to first acknowledge the tensions between these goals and start a conversation on how we fund, protect, and share our research, knowledge, intellectual property, and products.

Building a research system set up to deliver both economic and social benefits means starting a discussion and developing resources that help researchers navigate the social, ethical, and economic issues that arise when their task shifts from research to responsible research and innovation.

This means moving away from linear models of knowledge transfer towards research as part of an innovation ecosystem that blurs boundaries between social, economic, and cultural benefit. This may require universities to rethink how they partner with other universities, businesses and governments domestically and globally. It may even require a radical rethink of the relationship between research and intellectual property.

Crucially, the idea of competitive advantage must give way to one of collaborative advantage, an approach to innovation that relies on sharing ideas and knowledge across institutional boundaries. This would be less a nudge and more a paradigm shift. It requires a rethinking of notions of ownership, sharing, commercialisation, intellectual property and maybe even the law.

Should universities in the twenty-first century even be looking to monetise research? Should we instead be looking for other ways to reward them for undertaking development and enterprise?

This article was first published by Research Fortnight (19 Sept 2019).

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