Skip to main content

NCSA Chief Scientist Daniel S. Katz on ‘Open Science’

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of virtual essays from NCSA experts on current topics impacting the field of high-performance computing and research.

Open Science Can Lead Us into a New Age of Discovery
By Daniel S. Katz, NCSA Chief Scientist

Throughout history, the pursuit of knowledge and scholarship has often acted as our guiding light, leading us to new ages and new discoveries. There’s a German word that perfectly encapsulates that defining principle: Wissenschaft. We seek new knowledge for its own purpose as well as for its potential to solve both detailed and general problems, situations and crises. We want to be able to verify or disprove such knowledge, then build on it as simply and as cost-efficiently as possible.

This knowledge has been captured and shared through text, images, data, software and many other ways. Over hundreds of years, a system developed across many fields of research where this knowledge is shared as papers and books; publishing them is one of the main methods by which scholars are recognized and credited. The open-access movement initially focused on making these products freely available so that this knowledge could be read and used for further work by others.

More recently, the open-science vision has expanded to include the full set of processes and products involved in research: making it clear how a particular research project is conducted as well as making all the output available for others to access, understand, reuse and build upon. This is beginning to match the longstanding vision of free and open-source software, where software is developed publicly and shared publicly, and ideally, anyone can understand, use and contribute to the software. The open-science philosophy isn’t limited to the realms of engineering, computing and biology. It is an all-encompassing doctrine of scholarship and that applies to all research domains, from STEM to humanities and the arts. A collaborative approach to future breakthroughs and advances in our understanding of the world is at the heart of our endeavor.

Open science has numerous potential benefits. Ethically, we want to make research as understandable as possible to everyone, including people in all regions of the world and in all social and cultural situations, rather than having knowledge limited only to particular sets of people. Economically, the results of publicly funded research should be available to that public, including other researchers who can reuse the results of such investments instead of duplicating the work. They should be able to verify and then build upon existing research to both accelerate the process of science and build faith in it. And the public will also, ideally, have more confidence in science they can observe and understand rather than simply what they are told.

Daniel S. Katz, NCSA Chief Scientist

All of this requires work beyond mere access, including clear visualizations and communication in different languages and at different levels. Watching a weather forecast as a video is generally easier to understand than an audio- or text-only forecast. Researchers often use jargon when they communicate with each other because this is an efficient way to discuss agreed-upon topics in a narrow community, but they also need to be able to communicate in plain language. Using jargon – and even the sole use of English – can limit the accessibility of their work to others. Researchers are already implementing the use of plain-language abstracts for papers, which help the public as well as researchers in other fields better understand the idea of the paper. The #betterposter movement is a simple, yet great example of how to help make research more accessible.

The Journal of Open Source Software (JOSS) is a journal I co-founded that I think exemplifies some aspects of open science: Our peer-review process is completely open with the identities of the authors and reviewers known to both parties and the review takes place as an open discussion that anyone can observe and potentially join. While our journal showcases the benefits of open science I’ve already detailed, it doesn’t come without potential drawbacks. The transparency of the process is generally positive as open discussions by named people, at least in research, tend to be more polite and productive – particularly with an editor who monitors and guides discussion while following a code of conduct – than reviews that are anonymous. However, some reviewers may not feel comfortable being as honest as they may normally be under the protection of anonymity, for example, if they are in a less powerful position than the author and don’t want to burn any bridges on their career path.

The research community today is moving in the direction of open science and open scholarship, and taking steps that match the idealistic view of knowledge and scholarship most share and want to participate in. There are challenges, of course. The greatest may be the competitive culture of research which can hinder necessary collaboration. Researchers are often afraid of putting work into something that another publishes before them and “getting scooped.” However, if the full work behind those results was open, it would demonstrate who had accomplished what and when.

Another hurdle is that our general research assessment system is fundamentally flawed, rewarding publication in specific journals over openness and impact. Efforts such as the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA), the Coalition for Advancing Research Assessment (CoARA) and the Amsterdam Declaration on Funding Research Software Sustainability (, along with innovative plans in the Netherlands and France, are trying to change this, however.

So while there are challenges, there are also potential answers. Many researchers are already striving to demonstrate the value of openness in their own work and careers. All of us in the research community should learn from their examples and make our results and processes more open, with the support of our institutions, governments, professional organizations, funders and publishers. Our pursuit of knowledge can only be further enhanced by our willingness to welcome open scholarship. Join us and let’s take these next steps together.

Back to top