Open Access or Effective Research Communication?

Is there a risk that the ‘open science’ agenda obscures the need for effective research communication?

In the context of ‘open access week’ and the necessary and justified focus on openness in science, whether of data or of publications, it is worth reflecting on the interplay between ‘open science’ agendas and research communication goals.

Photo: Viktor Forgacs

Research communication can only succeed when targeting specific audiences in a dedicated manner. That is, when research is communicated in ways that are intelligible to and of use for specific audiences, with particular roles, and in real empirical contexts. In fact, the path from research to benefit for society goes via effective communication. But is making your research paper open access equal to providing access to your research insights to relevant stakeholders?

Clearly, these two important goals – open access and effective research communication – should not be seen as an either-or trade-off. Yet, effective research communication demands resources. As does open science, whether the curation of data for open access, or in different ways achieving open access publication.

When resources are scarce, which principles should guide prioritization of time and money – when transparency and access, as well as intelligible user-friendliness, of up-to-date knowledge for different societal actors is at stake?

The open science agenda, broadly, aspires to aims of transparency and re-use of data, whether in replication studies, or beyond. In essence, open access to data, therefore, is geared toward research quality and research integrity, and as such, in a profound way, is all about trust in research. That is of course a necessary foundation for any kind of impact, not just within research environments, but also when considering potential for societal impact.

Effective research communication is about making insights and findings accessible to relevant actors, in tailored ways. Of course, this includes academic publications, which, if shared open access, can be read by anyone. In this way, the aims of open science and effective research communication might align. This does happen, and all the more so in a context where many people have studied at university and are both capable and unafraid of the idea of reading an academic paper. This is good news, for access, accountability, and the prospect of impact of research for the common good.

However, there are also some serious obstacles to this best-case scenario. First, how research articles are written matters. A challenge to accessibility – in terms of actually understanding the content – is the increasing impenetrability of academic papers. This might be due to extensive use of acronyms making papers unintelligible to readers from outside of a specific narrow field, or it might be due to a lack of clarity in arguments presented, often not helped by relying heavily on disciplinary jargon.

Second, while many of those potentially interested in particular research results certainly are able to read academic articles, they often do not have the time to do so. Therefore, access is not the same as accessibility. And this is where research communication – the task of tailoring how findings and insights are communicated in intelligible, user-relevant, formats, is something more than sharing your paper open access.

Third, there is a risk of a vicious cycle, where articles are open access, but remain inaccessible, and where research insights remain unknown to relevant actors. However, flipping this, there is potential for a virtuous cycle, where articles are open access, and key insights and findings are also being communicated in targeted and effective ways, potentially leading to further reading of the open access papers too.

The challenge of prioritizing time and resources should, however, not be under-estimated. Sharing data open access can only be done after careful curation, usually a stretch beyond the data cleaning needed for analysis in the first place. This is clearly an investment, and one which should be seen as a core research activity. Yet, not one that there is always scope to budget realistically for, within existing research funding.

Meanwhile, effective research communication is also extremely resource-demanding, and relies not only on sustaining relevant networks over time, which allow for the kind of targeted research communication which yields impact. It also requires a willingness to invest time in simplifying often complex research findings, into relevant insights, and the ability and patience to produce text, audio or video output to this end.

An open science mantra without an accompanying and integral attention to research communication is a curious construct. Providing sufficient resources to achieve not just open access, but real accessibility of research findings for relevant stakeholders, therefore appears a crucial tool for any research policy maker propagating an open science agenda. Till then, researchers are left with a set of impossible choices, and chances are research insights of societal benefit are not making their way to interested audiences in optimal ways, whether articles are open access or not.

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