OpenCon 2016 Reports from Virginia Tech Graduate Students

As part of Open Access Week, the University Libraries and the Graduate School offered two travel scholarships to OpenCon 2016, a conference for early career researchers on open access, open data, and open educational resources. This is the third year we have jointly supported graduate student travel to the conference. From a pool of many strong essay applications, we chose Mayra Artiles, a Ph.D. candidate in Engineering Education, and Daniel Chen, a Ph.D. candidate in Genetics, Bioinformatics, and Computational Biology. In addition, Mohammed Seyam, a Ph.D. candidate in Computer Science, attended. All were in Washington, D.C. for the conference November 12-14, and sent the reports below. Be sure to check out the OpenCon 2016 highlights.

Mohammed Seyam, Mayra Artiles, and Daniel Chen at Sen. Warner's office
Mohammed Seyam, Mayra Artiles, and Daniel Chen at Sen. Warner’s office

Mayra Artiles writes:

Being as open as possible – OpenCon 2016

This year I had the opportunity to attend OpenCon 2016 in Washington, DC. When I initially applied for the scholarship, I had a vague idea of how the Open agenda tied into my research and why was it important to me. However, I was not prepared for what the conference would spark. While in the US Open is mainly focused on open access to journals, the global idea of open is as diverse as are our problems. Interacting with people from different parts of the globe, who were amazingly passionate about Open in general, I learned that open access to journal articles is relatively a first world problem. While some countries fight for journal access, many more fight for textbooks and others fight for reliable internet. The more people I met, the more I learned how all of these unique issues are all nested under the large umbrella of making knowledge accessible on a global scale. One of the things that came out of these conversations was my involvement in a collaboration to create OpenCon Latin America – a conference similar to the one we had all just attended but held entirely in Spanish, empowering people and spreading the Open ideal in a language spoken mainly by over 425 million people.

This made me think about the following question: How can we, as Hokies, be as open as possible with our research? While fighting the academic tenure process and breaking the paradigms of open access journals is an endeavor of huge proportions, we can take small steps on being more open every day. We need to be as open as possible and as closed as necessary. It is for this reason I have made a list of steps on how we can be open today. The best part is that all these resources are open:

  1. Take stock of all your publications and make a list of the journals you’ve published or plan to publish in.
  2. Visit Sherpa Romeo and look up these journals. This page will provide information on which parts of your work are shareable and whether or not there is an embargo on your work. If you’re lucky, you can share a copy of your pre-print.
  3. Share as much as possible on repositories such as VTechWorks and other sites such as ResearchGate.
  4. Create your impact story at ImpactStory – all you need is an ORCID profile. Our work should mean more than amount of times we get cited. This website shows just that: it will give you a score for how ‘open’ is your work, show how many people saved, shared, tweeted, and cited your work and across how many channels, among other great things. As researchers, we are more than our H-index.
  5. Have a conversation with your research peers and advisors on the value of open research. While we can’t convince everybody to suddenly publish in open access, we can begin the conversation and break the paradigms. A great resource to learn more about the value of open research is Why Open Research?

OpenCon 2016 logo

Daniel Chen writes:

What is “open”? Merriam-Webster tells us that it is “having no enclosing or confining barrier: accessible on all or nearly all sides”. For OpenCon, access (to academic publications), education, and data lay at the center of its mission.

The conference brings together a select group of like-minded individuals who are all passionate towards openness. Since the conference was single-tracked, it allowed everyone to focus on the various projects, hurdles, and conversations people have about Open around the world. We had plenty of time and space to roam around American University to continue conversations. I was lucky and privileged enough to be one of the select attendees and represent Virginia Tech.

My road to Open revolves mainly though open education and open data. I teach for Software Carpentry and Data Carpentry and support NumFOCUS. It is logical then, that my definition of Open mainly focuses around open source scientific computing. It’s a very specific subset of Open, and OpenCon helped me remember what role I play in the the larger Open movement.

For me Open Education is teaching the Creative Commons-licensed Software Carpentry material the past 3 years. Over the years, my idea of open education revolved around higher education: textbooks for university students, scientific computing materials for graduate students, resources for open source. I was reminded that open education was not just for the graduate students trying to improve the quality of their research, textbooks and educational materials were not just for university students. Open education is used to teach students from all ages, lesson materials and books for elementary school, textbooks for middle school, high school, and university. It allows students and educators to invest resources in other ways to help foster better learning. Here at Virginia Tech, you may notice OpenStax books in the library, but the Rebus Community is another resource and place to get involved with open education materials.

As a data scientist, I am constantly combining disparate datasets from a myriad of sources to answer a research question. I rely heavily on open data sets. Many cities in the United States now have open data portals (e.g., NYC Open Data), and government agencies, such as the Department of Commerce house a plethora of open datasets. These datasets are great for an analyst such as myself, but open data sources such as OpenStreetMap and ClinicalTrials.gov help with urban planning in cities and provide drug trial data and results to people all over the world.

One of my favorite parts of the conference happened on the second day when we shifted from a single-track conference to an un-conference style meeting. Attendees from the conference pitched various discussion topics, and the attendees of the conference dispersed across the American University Law School. I attended a discussion about openness in academia where we talked how we incorporate it in our academic lives. For some of us (including myself), we are lucky that our advisors understand openness. Most, if not all, of my research code has a MIT Open Source License. Others found the challenge of pushing and fighting for ‘openness’ a way of disrupting the traditional ivory tower philosophy. One attendee was an undergraduate freshman who was trying to understand what openness was and how he can incorporate it as he begins his academic career. This was a great metaphor for what OpenCon stands for, empowering and pushing openness to the next generation.

I also attended the breakout discussion about global health, where we talked about how openness plays a role in improving global health. I met many people who work in the health space, and use open data and open access sources to improve health. For example, Daniel Mietchen from the NIH is part of a global infectious disease response team to build the tools and protocols necessary to respond to the next epidemic. The 2014 Ebola and 2015 Zika outbreaks are recent reminders of how much we can improve our global response to infectious disease outbreaks. In this unconference, we also talked about drug results reporting in at ClinicalTrials.gov. The problem is that even though clinical trials are listed there, not all of the results from the trials are reported after the initial trial listing. This takes away the ability for people looking to educate themselves about various treatment options for a disease, and more pressure is needed to make sure this information is adequately distributed in a timely manner.

Our final day at the conference had everyone in the conference work in groups to talk to various funding agencies and senators about openness. Essentially, we became lobbyists for Open. I was lucky enough to be in two groups. My first group talked with Rachael Florence, PhD, the Program Director of the Research Infrastructure program at the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI). We talked about how PCORI’s goal is to make study results and data more widely available, brought up the concerns about disseminating clinical trials results, and generally discussed faster reporting, lowering publication bias, reproducible research, and data sharing. We also talked about what OpenCon was, and intrigued Dr. Florence to attend next year.

My next stop was the office of Virginia Senator Mark Warner. We did not get to talk to him directly, but instead talked to his senior Policy Advisor, Kenneth Johnson, Jr. It was during this discussion that I wished we had more training on being an effective lobbyist. We only make 2 passes around the circle during our meeting. The first was introducing ourselves, and the second was how Open played a role in our lives. There was a small conversation about open data, open access, and open education for the state of Virginia, but I wished we were able to have a longer conversation. Senator Warner is already familiar with many aspects of Open, so not too much convincing was needed, but I worried about how other groups fared.

In the end, I felt OpenCon was a great experience. I made new connections with other people from all over the world, and gained new experiences on how to talk about Open. It has also given me some ideas for a side project about using ClinicalTrials.gov data to reporting rates for various clinical trials. I hope I am lucky enough next year to attend as well, and urge everyone at Virginia Tech to learn about Open, and get involved!

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About Philip Young

Philip Young is Scholarly Communications Librarian at Virginia Tech and is a strong advocate of open access and open licensing.
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