OpenCon 2014 Reports from Virginia Tech Grad Students

As part of Open Access Week, the University Libraries and the Graduate School offered two travel scholarships to OpenCon 2014, a conference for early career researchers on open access, open data, and open educational resources. From a pool of many strong essay applications, we chose Jessie Gunter, a master’s student in public health, and Mohammed Seyam, a Ph.D. student in computer science. Jessie and Mohammed attended the conference in Washington, D.C. November 15-17, and sent the reports below. Be sure to check out the OpenCon 2014 presentation videos and slides.

Jessie and Mohammed
Jessie and Mohammed at Senator Tim Kaine’s office

Jessie Gunter writes:

OpenCon 2014 surpassed all expectations I could have had for a conference about Open Access, Open Education, and Open Data. The enthusiasm from all of the conference attendees was contagious and empowering, and I gained a much more nuanced understanding of all things “Open” thanks to a variety of incredible speakers, panels, workshops, and coffee break conversations. A part of the conference that I found particularly useful as an early career researcher and student was a workshop with Erin McKiernan called “How to make your research open.” The major takeaways from this, for me, were:

  • Check out peer-reviewed Open Access journals and publishers. PeerJ, PLOS, and eLife are examples of innovative OA publishing models with strong peer review. Also check DOAJ, the Thomson Reuters Open Access Journal List, and the Cofactor Journal Selector Tool to find journals that you might want to publish in.
  • If you don’t or can’t publish Open Access, check Sherpa/Romeo to see each publisher’s copyright policies on pre-prints, post-prints, and self-archiving. If the journal in which you are publishing allows pre-prints, for example, get your work out there to advance knowledge!
  • Consider using GitHub for code and data archiving and collaborative research tools such as writeLaTeX, shareLaTeX, or Authorea for writing, figshare for all kinds of self-archiving.
  • Explore your licensing options at creativecommons.org/choose (*Be mindful that choosing an option that prevents commercial entities from reusing your work would prevent your research from being used in university courses, Wikipedia…).
  • Consider using WordPress or another blogging platform to explain your work to non-experts.
  • Track your impact! with Altmetric and showcase your work and citations.

OpenCon 2014

Mohammed Seyam writes:

Day 0
On my way to Washington DC to attend OpenCon 2014 I was ready to attend a “regular” conference, where speakers have pre-planned speeches and where audience keep wishing for 1-2 exciting speeches per day! Now, after the 3-day conference is over, I can say that OpenCon 2014 was the conference that every single session of its rich program was a real value added besides being exciting enough to keep us all fully engaged with every speaker. Moreover, the conference wasn’t only about speakers and sessions, it was also about people getting to know each other and learning from the diverse international experiences of the participants. This fine mix of sessions and social activities resulted in one of the most remarkable events I ever attended.

The “different” atmosphere began with the welcome social on the day we arrived at the hotel. The organizers decided to gather participants in an open space to get introduced to each other and provide some sort of background before delving into the actual program events. On that 2-hour social, I got to know people from at least 8 different countries, as well as students from several universities in the USA. For me, that was an indicator that a very special event was to come.

Day 1
The first day of the conference – which was held at the Washington College of Law at American University – started with Michael Carroll, who gave a brief introduction to the conference. However, one of his quotes got me into the conference mood, which was: “You can’t just think open access is a good idea – you have to believe it.” From that talk on, the belief in open access began to grow stronger in all the conference participants. After Carroll, it was Patrick Brown‘s turn to talk on founding PLOS (Public Library of Science), and how to raise awareness and increase public interest in open access issues. Petitions, advocacy sessions, and direct talks are all ways to support open access, even if with no or minor instant outcomes. His most inspirational quote on that topic was: “If you don’t believe you’ll succeed, nobody else will!”

After Brown’s keynote, there was a panel on “The state of Open” where speakers presented the current state of open data, open education, and open access in and out of the USA. The first speaker was Heather Joseph, the Executive Director of SPARC (Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition). She talked about SPARC’s goal: Set the default to open. She also presented the state of open in the USA. During her talk, Joseph stressed that open access doesn’t mean only to be able to access the material, but also to be able to fully reuse it. In the USA, there are 50 institutions that have financial support for those who want to publish in open access journals (Virginia Tech is one of them!). As for the legal issues, Joseph showed that California became the first state to mandate open access to taxpayer funded research.

Iryna Kuchma then presented the state of open with an international view. Kuchma is the open access programme manager at EIFL (Electronic Information For Libraries). Besides the many numbers she showed and the different approaches she followed in advising for open access, it was important to announce that open access is now required by law in Mexico, Argentina, and Peru.

Ross Mounce then had an interesting presentation on the state of open data in research. Since Mounce is a postdoctoral researcher, he had deep insights regarding the open data issues. He simply believes that if a researcher doesn’t share his data, his research can’t be trusted (or believed!). The large size of data shouldn’t be a barrier, as some MRI scans with a total of 39 Gigabytes were just shared openly online. Mounce is against PDF and other closed source formats, and he advises to go with open formats such as csv.

The interesting panel ended with Nicole Allen, the Director of Open Education at SPARC. Allen’s main point involved open textbooks, and that was so important as the costs of textbooks are rising at almost three times the rate of inflation! Simply put, students can’t learn from materials they can’t afford. Therefore, with the explosion of openly licensed content during the last few years, it’s clear that open textbooks will be the next big step towards open education.

The second keynote speaker of the day was Victoria Stodden, the associate professor in the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her talk was about the importance of reproducibility of research, as well as the current trials of several USA organizations to create methods to organize the copyright issues related to open access. She sees that reproducibility and open access are sister issues. She then demonstrated Mertonian norms, which are communalism, universalism, disinterestedness, originality, and scepticism. These norms were also discussed by Brian Nosek in his open access week keynote at Virginia Tech. Stodden showed that skepticism requires transparency in the communication of the research process. She also talked about the importance of having senior researchers helping to move forward on the open access road, as the young researchers may not be able to do it all on their own. Stodden finally shared some facts regarding the steps that the Obama administration had taken to support open access in some government organizations.

After lunch, Uvania Naidoo from the University of Cape Town (South Africa) led a workshop on open access on the context of developing countries. It was important to highlight the case of open access in countries that already have problems with “access” itself. In my sub-group, we heard from a Mexican lawyer about his story on making open access mandatory for publicly-funded research in Mexico. Since many of the conference attendees were not from the USA, this session was full of personal stories on how the world sees open access, and it was full of different experiences that add a lot to the overall conference theme.

The second panel of the day was about “innovative publishing models”, and it was moderated by Meredith Niles, a postdoctoral research fellow at Harvard University. The first speaker was Arianna Becerril from Redalyc, who talked about her organization that provides an open access from Latin America, which is non-commercial and regional platform. For her, science that’s not seen, doesn’t exist! After Becerril, Peter Binfield, the cofounder of PeerJ presented his thoughts on open publishing, emphasizing the PeerJ history and future. He discussed the debate on open peer review, and provided some arguments that encourage reviewers and researchers to consider open peer review to be the default reviewing system. He also demonstrated some alternatives to the impact factor system, and presented the PeerJ reputation system that provides incentives for researchers to openly share more of their work. Then Martin Paul Eve from University of Lincoln in the UK and the cofounder of the Open Library of Humanities presented what he believes to be the three main problems of open access, which are: researcher access, public access, and reusability. Since most of work in humanities is not funded, the article processing charges are unaffordable for humanities researchers. That was the reason that led Eve and cofounders to work on the Open Library of Humanities to overcome such problem. Finally on that panel, Mark Patterson, the Executive Director of eLife, presented his view on how funders can take action to support open access. He also shared his thoughts on the traditional way of research assessment based on impact factors, seeing that as the real barrier to overcome, and providing some alternate initiatives led by eLife publishing system.

The last panel of the day was on “Impact of Open”, moderated by Erin McKiernan, a postdoctoral fellow at Wilfrid Laurier University. The first speaker on this panel was Daniel DeMarte, the VP for Academic Affairs at Tidewater Community College. He presented his college’s impressive experience of adopting Open Educational Resources (OERs), which led to saving its students around $250,000 a year! The question that came to the minds of almost all the attendees was: how many millions could be saved if OER were used in many institutions?!

The second speaker was Jack Andraka, the winner of Intel’s 2012 International Science and Engineering Fair for his pancreatic cancer research and testing tool. He told the story of his breakthrough cancer diagnostic which I already knew, but it was new for me to know the importance of one open paper published on PLOS for his research. Therefore, Andraka was a very good example on how open research can affect human lives, and the cancer diagnostic test is a clear proof of this.

Peter Murray-Rust from the University of Cambridge then presented an expert view of how open is important for life. He hopes for a revolution in the world of publishing, as he believes that closed access means people die. He also sees that some laws can be broadly interpreted to help save more lives. Murray’s talk was a real inspiration for many of the attendees, and I believe he affected the minds of how youth should deal with the open access current and future state.

The last keynote of the day was by John Wilbanks, who discussed his view on “Open as a platform”. He emphasized the role of reusable data over open data, and that’s when he asked a simple question: “which is more valuable: Google or Google Scholar?” He also believe that a winning strategy for designing for open access would be “let’s create more value for the user”, not the “let’s build an open ecosystem” one. He concluded his talk with the legal issues, and the steps that should be taken to push policy makers to consider the open access bills and mandates to better serve people and communities.
This wonderful first day of OpenCon 2014 ended with a nice reception at Old Ebbitt Grill in downtown Washington DC, were we get to know more about those who we didn’t have the chance to talk with during the day. During that evening reception, most of the conversations were views, feedback, ideas, and questions about the day’s sessions. I think that social was more of a bonus session for the day, rather than a final break!

Day 2
Based on the great first day, the expectations of the second day were very high, and the excitement was clear on the faces of attendees during the breakfast. Frankly, the second day didn’t disappoint us, and it was as rich as the first day, thanks so the excellent organizing team.

The first key note was for Audrey Watters of Hack Education, who were concerned about moving from “open” to “justice”. She began the talk with a definition of “Openwashing”, which she defines as: having an appearance of open-source and open-licensing for marketing purposes, while continuing proprietary practices. Then she continued presenting her ideas on how data is not neutral and that injustices can be embedded within data. She believes that it’s not enough to have open access, because political engagement and social justice are still needed to get the full benefits of being open.

The second keynote was by Erin McKiernan, a postdoctoral fellow at Wilfrid Laurier University. As an early career researcher, she provided how young researchers can support and work for open access while maintaining their jobs and future. She provided some tips for researchers on how to avoid the dilemma of “worshipping” the impact factor, as she believes that impact factors have nothing to do with academic quality. She showed her open pledge, concluding it with a quote to remember: “If I’m going to make it in science, it has to be on terms I can live with”. McKiernan also provided some tips to use when a young researcher introduces open access to his/her advisor, examples are: be concise, include data, explain the benefits, list the different options and talk to the advisor early.

The R2RC (Right to Research Coalition) then honoured Melissa Hagemann of the Open Society Foundation for being a foundation of the open access movement on the first awards given by R2RC. I believe this is a good first step towards recognizing those who provided much of their time and effort to advocate for open access for human wellbeing.

Following the awards ceremony was a panel were students and early career researchers have presented their success stories in working for open access. Stories from USA, Kenya, Nepal, Nigeria, and Australia have been presented and showed how great students can achieve because of their enthusiasm and belief in the open access idea. It was also noticeable that open access worked well even in developing countries that lack “access” in many cases. However, it’s all about how people work together and not accepting “No” as an answer until they achieve their goals.

The third keynote of the day was by Phil Bourne, the first Associate Director for Data Science at the NIH (National Institutes of Health). Bourne was concerned about how crazy and broken the system is, and how open access is important to human health. He showed the top-down and bottom-up approaches that can be used to facilitate data sharing. He, as more than one of the previous speakers, thinks that money is important but it won’t solve all the problems when it comes to being open. He emphasised the roles of government as well as promotion and hiring committees in encouraging researchers to openly share their data and research.

After lunch, there was a workshop by Erin McKiernan and Ross Mounce on how to make a research open. They provided a roadmap and several tools that can help any researcher to go open with his research. The main steps they presented were: find a journal that allows preprints (like arXiv, figshare and PeerJ), choose a journal to publish in (using DOAJ for example), explore licensing options (on Creative Commons), self-archive the research (on PeerJ, figshare, university repository, or a personal website!), and write blogs to explain the research (on WordPress for example). Many tools and links were given on this workshop that I believe was of a great value for many of the attendees.

Peter Binfield had a second appearance but as a keynote speaker this time; where he talked about megajournals. He showed how important to fight for “impact neutral” journals. He also thinks that the rejected papers, rejection letters, and paper reviews are all valuable to be shared publicly online. Coming from the PeerJ, Binfield had some deep insights on how the publishing system works, and how it can benefit from open access movement.

Two panels were then held back-to-back where some of the participants presented their projects that support open access. Again, it was amazing and very inspirational to see how researchers and students can achieve based mainly on their own beliefs.

The final keynote for the day was given by Carolina Botero, who was supposed to talk about open access in Latin America. However, her talk covered many aspects related to open access in general, especially the legal issues and how to deal with governments to create laws that mandate open access. She also talked about the Colombian grad student who faces jail time for sharing a thesis online. She concluded her talk by emphasizing the role of young researchers and activists in raising public awareness on the importance of open access and how it affects people lives.

That day was concluded by an “unconference” session, where informal meetings were held at the hotel so that subgroups can discuss whatever topics they feel interested in. One of active tables was the one that discussed “Open access in humanities”, where the participants showed their concerns about sharing preprints because in the humanities it’s like sharing their own thinking process. They also discussed the review process and how open reviews would help their research field.

Day 3
The third – and last – day began early at the Hart Senate Office Building, where we were assigned to certain groups for specific tasks. That day was called the “Advocacy day”; as we were supposed to meet with legislators to let them know more about open access and encourage them to move forward on the process of mandating openness. We had a short – yet entertaining – talk that was full of information by Amy Rosenbaum (Deputy Assistant to the President of the United States for Legislative Affairs). She talked about her past relationship with SPARC, and then she gave some quick tips on how to deal with legislators for such advocacy meetings. We also had some tips from the organizers that helped us on our advocacy meeting. Our group was supposed to meet with Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA) at the Russell Senate Office Building, but since he wasn’t available we met with his legislative aide. With three of our group coming from universities in Virginia (Virginia Tech and the University of Virginia), Senator Kaine was quite familiar for us and his interest in education topics encouraged us to discuss the open education policies with his legislative aide. It was a very productive meeting as everyone in the group presented personal experience with the topic, and the aide was eager to know more, promising that she’ll move all our thoughts to Senator Kaine when he’s back in the office. One of her interesting questions was about if there were any state that had some bills related to that issue, and our answer was California. So she asked us to provide her with some details and we promised to send her such details on her email.

After lunch, we moved to the US Department of State, where we met with members working on the Open Government Partnership. All of us were international students, so the members began to talk about their efforts in working with several countries on open access issues, and they wanted to listen to our experiences and how they can work with our governments to support open access. They showed that Obama’s administration is determined to work on open access issues as part of its mission, but things move so slowly when it comes to legislation. However, they have achieved success related to the Open Government Initiative, and they were optimistic about the future of open access in the USA and some other countries that they are working with.

That great day ended with a dinner at the University Club, where it was clear how “unique” that conference was. Although it was the same friendly atmosphere of the very first social, one could easily see that many real friendships have been created during the 3-day period. Some very inspiring talks were given by the organizers, followed by quality time for participants sharing their final small talks with each other. Some of the next steps were introduced based on the momentum of the event, and many online communication mediums were put to use.

Final Thoughts
On many of the breaks and subgroup talks, I’ve always been proud to talk about Virginia Tech’s initiatives to encourage open access. VT libraries open repository, VTechWorks, was always appreciated by the audience, as well as the VT initiative to fund researchers who want to publish in open journals. Open textbooks were introduced to me just a few weeks before attending OpenCon 2014, and I was proud to demonstrate how VT is already taking steps towards open textbooks while they were presenting that topic during the conference. Moreover, VT activities during Open Access Week helped me to easily get involved in some topics that needed deep understanding, and that was a very good example of how universities can advocate for open access through such activities and sessions. Since many other universities in the USA didn’t have any policies or even ideas for open access, I was glad that VT (and VT libraries) considered working on open access early, which shows the vision that our administration has. This vision, I believe, was the reason that made VT libraries decide – together with VT Graduate School – to support two students to attend this conference. I was glad when I got accepted for such scholarship, and I was excited to participate, but now I’m inspired and enthusiastic to work with VT libraries to find ways to advocate and encourage VT staff members and researchers to openly publish their work. I’m also very interested to work on the legislative level, especially in Virginia, to draw the legislators’ attention to the importance of open data and open education for the community as a whole, not only for university and researchers. I believe that the experience I got from OpenCon 2014, together with the connections I’ve made with other open access activists, will help me a lot to work on this during the rest of my time at VT.

OpenCon 2014
OpenCon 2014 by Aloysius Wilfred Raj, CC-BY 2.0
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About Philip Young

Philip Young is Scholarly Communication Librarian at Virginia Tech where he supports outreach about open access, copyright/open licensing, open data, ORCID, and metrics/altmetrics.

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