10/19/23 · Research

"The academic community and the administrative teams at the UOC are committed to open science"

ciro llueca

Ciro Llueca (photo: David Campos)

Ciro Llueca, UOC Deputy General Manager for Research and Knowledge Transfer

In recent years, the international community has shown a firm commitment to open access to scientific knowledge. The recent pandemic highlighted the need to share research results as quickly as possible and without obstacles in order to move towards a global goal, which in that case was to control the coronavirus. It also reignited the debate on whether it is lawful for the production of knowledge to be controlled by a few companies rather than by the researchers themselves, and whether this is in the public interest.

International Open Access Week is held worldwide from 23 to 29 October. It is an initiative that promotes open dissemination and access to academic research, and the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC) takes part every year. The university is committed to generating open knowledge and reforming research assessment to boost quality, performance and impact. Indeed, in 2019 the UOC signed the San Francisco Declaration (DORA), and in 2022 it participated together with more than 350 organizations from 40 countries in a co-creation process that resulted in the international Coalition for Advancing Research Assessment (CoARA). The UOC is now working on drafting its Research Assessment Reform Plan for 2024-2027.

Ciro Llueca took over as Deputy General Manager for Research and Knowledge Transfer at the UOC a year ago. We talked to him about the UOC's commitments and the challenges it faces in this area.

What is open access exactly?

It's the right to access scientific knowledge, especially if it's received public funding. It's the result of a movement that started in the scientific community and later extended to society as a whole. It was a natural reaction to the substantial increase in the cost of access to research seen since the 1970s, and since the 1990s in particular. Scientific societies, universities and groups editing and publishing their own journals had gradually been replaced by the management of academic publishing by a number of very powerful corporate groups. The scientific community reacted to this oligopoly with stances and manifestos, such as the Budapest Declaration (2001). In the last 20 years, the movement has become widespread, culminating in the UNESCO Recommendation on Open Science (2021), which elevates open science to the same level as all other human rights. Most legislation and policies in the EU and the rest of the world already provide for open access.

Technological advances and the rise of the internet must also have had an effect.

They did, and they helped raise awareness by the public, which started to question to what extent research, which is largely funded with public money, reaches the public domain. In other words, we all pay our researchers to carry out research. So we hope that the fruits of this research will have an impact on everyone, on society as a whole. Technology has been, and continues to be, a tool to achieve such access more easily.

What does it entail?

In the first place, open access to everything published in academic journals, because these scientific publications are the basic form of knowledge transfer in the scientific community. Over the last three decades, this has evolved towards the concept of open science, which includes open access to scientific publications but also access to data, doctoral theses, learning resources and software. In summary, it covers all scientific output that receives public funding.

To date, researchers have both paid to publish their research (often with public funds) in high-impact journals, and then also had to pay to access them. That seems like it's a corruption of the system?

The peer review publishing system has been established as the most effective method for the transfer of science. A researcher with an idea, a hypothesis, submits it for assessment by the scientific community with expertise in the same field; and they endorse it, qualify it, reject it or ignore it. Obviously, people generally want to publish in the journal that gets the most citations for its papers, because it has more visibility, more impact on its field of knowledge. But it can lead to distorted results, because the journal starts to charge for publishing as well as for access. Scientific publishing certainly has a cost, because these publishing groups do editing and layout work, which involves infrastructures that help readers find filtered and curated contents. The problem arises when this becomes the only formula for knowledge transfer, where five or six large companies dominate all scientific distribution, concentrating all knowledge and limiting access only to those who can afford to access it. This is the crisis we find ourselves in.

They also hold the exploitation rights over the knowledge generated by the research community and published in these journals.

There's a convention recognized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that states that everyone should be able to decide on their artistic, literary and scientific creations and commercially exploit them for a living. In the case of scientific papers, what publishing groups usually do is obtain an assignment of these exploitation rights to publish the papers without restrictions. The authors of the papers are often unaware that they have assigned these rights. To put it another way, if they don't assign their rights, they won't be able to publish in that journal. The journal then publishes the paper with access restricted to those institutions that can pay for a subscription.

And is this still the case?

There are intermediate formulas that provide access to research – another universally recognized human right – while allowing these legitimate businesses to remain sustainable. Ensuring a balance between these two rights is key. The Netherlands was first, in 2015 – with the famous Taverne Amendment (named after the then Dutch Secretary of State for Culture) – but Spain, with Article 37 of its Science Law and Article 12 of the Organic Law on the University System, has gone further in protecting the rights of researchers: the retention of rights by authors in favour of public access. Systems are gradually being established to protect authors from assigning the exploitation of rights to journals of any kind. Now, even if an author has signed an exclusivity clause with a given journal to publish a paper in it, under Spanish law a version of the paper may simultaneously be published in other media, such as universities' institutional repositories.

In 2021 UNESCO approved the recommendation to make a commitment to open science and elevated it to the rank of universal right. The European Union has also made this commitment, making it an essential prerequisite for funding projects with public money. What is the situation in Catalonia and Spain in this regard?

I'd say they're both the same: they want to, but they can't.

What do you mean?

On the one hand, they feel part of the open science movement, which is already very well defined and widespread worldwide, and recognized in their own policies and legislation. Most people believe that research that has been supported and financed by public resources, in full or in part, must return to the public domain.

But, at the same time, they're leaders in the scientific community – a research community from economically developed countries – whose access to paid journals and databases is their main tool for accessing recent, high-quality scientific information. In the most radical scenario, where academic journals are no longer subscription-based, there is a risk that Catalan and Spanish research will lose its competitiveness.

But I'd stress that there are intermediate formulas that strike a balance between these two positions. Most universities and research centres in economically developed countries are making advances in the open publication of their scientific output without losing competitiveness.

That said, there's no turning back for open science. It's here to stay, and its evolution is unstoppable.

As you pointed out just now, open science clashes with the fact that the research community continues to be assessed based on the scientific papers published in high-impact journals (which are not open). How can we resolve this paradox?

Currently, in both Catalonia and Spain and in the rest of Europe, we're moving towards a more integrated vision that combines quantitative and qualitative elements. Journal metrics are very useful: if a paper is highly cited, that's evidence that it's very highly valued by the scientific community and, therefore, that the hypothesis published is correct: it's generated scientific progress. But if the agencies that assess teaching and research staff value only the journals with the best rankings, which are often paid journals, this leads to a certain degree of distortion, as I've said, because in the end the researchers who can publish in paid journals are those in the most developed countries; those in second- or third-world countries can't, which is unfair.

In addition, it has been demonstrated that scientific papers signed by male researchers receive more citations than those signed by women. This gender bias affects the careers of female researchers, who receive less funding and are less likely to be promoted.

Yes, indeed! There's also a bias between researchers in the global north and south, between developed and developing countries. The UOC joined a coalition created a year ago, the international Coalition for Advancing Research Assessment (CoARA), which includes over 500 organizations from more than 40 countries who've committed to drawing up a long-term plan to transform research assessment.

What criteria for a more qualitative assessment of researchers does this plan envisage?

Universities, research centres and funding bodies are trying to define objective qualitative criteria, as they do with quantitative metrics. As a result, the UOC incorporated this redefinition into its Strategic Plan and created an internal working group – led by Marta Aymerich, then vice rector for Research and former Director of the eHealth Center, and coordinated by Julie Wilson, associate dean for research in the Faculty of Economics and Business and researcher in the New perspectives in tourism and leisure research group (NOUTUR) – which, in collaboration with an expert from outside the university, Dr Llorenç Arguimbau, has allowed us to compile the non-quantitative assessment practices applicable to our setting. The most recent step has been the appointment of a group to draft the UOC's Research Assessment Reform Plan for 2024-2027, involving Julie Wilson; Israel Rodríguez, from the Internet Interdisciplinary Institute (IN3), Care and Preparedness in the Network Society (CareNet) research leader and professor at the Faculty of Psychology and Education Sciences; Víctor Garcia Font, researcher in the IN3 with the K-ryptography and Information Security for Open Networks (KISON) research group and professor in the Faculty of Computer Science, Multimedia and Telecommunications, and Bego Aguilera, director of the Open Science unit, under the coordination of Pastora Martínez-Samper, the UOC's Commissioner for International Action.

How is qualitative assessment carried out?

In addition to taking quantitative elements – metrics – into account, we try to assess and evaluate the impact of that research on society. The question is to what extent a paper contributes to scientific progress beyond being highly cited: what impact is it having on people's lives? What impact is this paper I've published, this research, having on helping people, say, maximize their learning capacity in an asynchronous context? Or has this vehicle traffic pattern analysis been part of a solution in municipal policies? Or has a field study on the underrepresentation of women in certain professions contributed to course plans that are more inclusive from a gender perspective? Or is an app developed to monitor eating habits contributing to healthier food consumption and the resulting better quality of life?

Linked to this, the UOC has launched a survey among teaching and research staff to assess the internal processes and criteria of the university's assessment model.

In addition to compiling the qualitative assessment methods being produced at other universities and research centres worldwide, we carried out a survey and various actions to understand the perception of our research staff, in particular the directors of research groups and principal investigators; and we asked them how much they knew about how they were being assessed and whether they'd know how to carry out an assessment other than with metrics. We also asked them, among other things, what experiences they were aware of that could be introduced at the UOC. And then, thanks to this work, we started to include all this knowledge in the plan that I mentioned, with a view to 2027. The idea is that, after the participation process, the UOC's Executive Board should approve this plan, which will enable the UOC to advance at the same pace as other universities. We're paving the way while monitoring what's happening around us because, obviously, we can't carry out assessments without conforming to the Catalan, Spanish or European agencies' criteria.

It was recently reported that a couple of professors at the University of Granada had named their son as co-author of their studies in order to help him in his research career even though he hasn't even started on a bachelor's degree yet. This isn't the only case of researchers appearing in research without having participated in it. Is this a side effect of this quantitative assessment we've been talking about?

Academic dishonesty exists, but I'd like to think that it's limited to specific actions by specific individuals. There's no widespread malpractice either at the UOC or in the Spanish or European research ecosystem. There will clearly always be someone who will take advantage of the loopholes in the system to try to profit without having to make an effort.

The UOC, as you've said, is making a firm commitment to open science. Can you highlight any milestones in this path that have already been reached?

The UOC is a pioneer in Spain, largely due to the leadership in this area of Pastora Martínez-Samper, when she was a vice rector in Rector Planell's team. She is now continuing this work in her new position as the UOC's Commissioner for International Action. Nevertheless, the UOC's Executive Board believes that the entire academic community and the university's administrative teams are committed to open science, as shown by the fact that 71% of our scientific output is already openly accessible, either because it was originally published as open access or because a version of the paper has been deposited in the UOC's O2 repository. Likewise, the UOC has excelled with other milestones, such as the Open Knowledge Action Plan that comprehensively covers the issue. It's not just about research or even open science – it goes even further. The plan covers open knowledge in its entirety and aims to incorporate elements of co-creation (including dissemination of science or public participation in academic experiments).

The UOC is also committed to open access learning resources.

And in this regard it's very, very different from other universities, because what most do is offer only a brief PowerPoint presentation or a guide prepared by course instructors in their open repositories. Whereas the UOC is completely different thanks to its Open Knowledge Action Plan, which sees learning resources added to the UOC's O2 repository and made available to the entire community. There are currently almost two thousand learning resources published as open access.

Likewise, a few weeks ago the UOC published an open dataset in CORA.RDR, the research data repository managed by the Catalan University Service Consortium (CSUC).

It was dataset number 500. This fact in itself is symbolic, but it highlights the matter and enables us to celebrate small successes, both institutional and collective, because CORA is a cooperative research data repository. As I mentioned before, it's no longer just about the open access publication of the papers resulting from our research but also the data generated in each study. Anyway, we're very happy with it. It's the dataset "Visualización del compromiso con la Responsabilidad Social Corporativa de las agencias de relaciones públicas" by Elisenda Estanyol, Marc Compte-Pujol and Ferran Lalueza, members of the UOC's Faculty of Information and Communication Sciences' and researchers in the Learning, Media and Entertainment Research Group (GAME).

What future challenges does the UOC face in this respect?

We need to consolidate the open science movement at the UOC so that staff work openly, so that their work forms part of this culture. We need to comply with the letter of the law, under which all scientific output funded with public money must be made immediately available to the public. As the theme of one Open Access Week said: "open by default".

A year ago you took on new responsibilities as Deputy General Manager for Research and Transfer at the UOC. How has this year gone? What challenges lie ahead?

The UOC finds itself in the best possible place in terms of research and knowledge transfer. This last year we've obtained more external funding than ever before, and this is a positive indicator. Likewise, our scientific output has the greatest impact and visibility it's ever had. Furthermore, a year ago we opened the Interdisciplinary R&I Hub: the result of the UOC's commitment to having a building entirely dedicated to research activity, and its labs are now available to the research community.

After this year, my own assessment is that our academic staff are more motivated to carry out research than ever. This is why the main challenge ahead is sizing the support teams correctly to avoid creating a bottleneck in which our research and teaching staff want to submit funding proposals, publish papers, collaborate with companies and bodies, or simply have the time to make progress in their research, and the administrative teams can't respond appropriately. This may be due to team size, internal or external red tape, processes that result in duplicated or overlapping efforts, a lack of the right tech, or staff struggling to find motivation post‑COVID or while teleworking (with its pros and its cons). This challenge is part of what we call an operating model, and it's critical to the proper functioning of the Office of the Deputy General Manager for Research and Knowledge Transfer.

So, we need to be able to work on operating models with the aim of innovating, growing, adapting to other challenges and generating new services with a more flexible culture of risk-taking and experimenting. What could be better than the R&I Hub for this strategy?

In relation to this, a law stipulating that universities must allocate 5% of their budget to research was recently passed.

We must ensure that the UOC reaches this 5%. We're not far from it. We're already very close, but this threshold must be consolidated and can't be at risk.

At the information session on October 16, Rector Àngels Fitó shared the university's medium-term forecast for the UOC's research strategy, led by Vice Rector Xavier Vilajosana. The rector explained that it entails, first, the provision of the necessary resources and infrastructures to consolidate research at the UOC; second, knowledge transfer – i.e., structuring, showcasing and promoting the transfer of knowledge generated at the university – and, third, raising the UOC's profile as a university of excellence in research.

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