From mitigating climate change to preparing for the next pandemic, so many pressing challenges demand global collaboration. Yet many researchers don’t have access to the latest scientific discoveries or avenues to contribute their solutions. This is prompting a growing call for open science practices and a more equitable knowledge sharing ecosystem in which librarians can play a key role.
Participants in the 3rd United Nations Open Science Conference February 8-10 called for policy and culture change to democratize the record of science. There was a sense of urgency among the 100 people gathered in New York and 2,000 online at the hybrid event for research to be shared across borders in order to accelerate progress toward the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
The conference emphasized three priorities: equity in open scholarship; reforming scientific publishing; and strengthening the science-policy-society interface.
“Sharing our knowledge on open-access, online platforms will only be detrimental to those who do not want a just and fair world,” said Csaba Kőrösi, President of the UN General Assembly in his keynote address on the opening day.
Science–based evidence and interdisciplinary cooperation are critical to identifying solutions to global problems, he noted. “Bridging the gap between science and decision making has been a cornerstone of my presidency since day one,” Kőrösi said. “I believe that only by doing so will it be possible to change the way we operate and to efficiently tackle the manifold challenges at hand.”
As the nature of crises change, Kőrösi told the conference participants that society must adapt to the way it responds.
“Better inclusion in science is paramount,” Kőrösi said. “We live in societies that have grown divided along arbitrary lines — such as gender, class, caste, religion, or ethnicity. Sadly, this unequal and unfair inheritance also seeped into academia, and science. Groups that have been historically marginalized are all too often still de facto excluded from research.”
Society cannot afford to overlook anyone’s contributions, according to Kőrösi. Fostering a culture of open research and access is critical for the democratization of knowledge. He underscored the dire consequences of rampant misinformation about vaccines, for instance, while credible peer-reviewed papers remain behind paywalls.
“The pandemic cast a stark light on the importance of having accurate, science-driven information easily and freely accessible, particularly online,” Kőrösi said. “It puts before us the urgency of strengthening the science-policy-society interface.”
The only way the UN can reach its SDGs is to change how those involve interact and deliver public goods. Kőrösi called for new, flexible measures for sustainability transformation. “The crises we face are interconnected. So, too, must be our solutions,” he said.
The UN’s development goals can be achieved with the help of science, said Shamila Nair-Bedouelle, UNESCO’s Assistant Director-General for Natural Sciences, speaking at the conference. However, too often there are gaps in access to information on issues, such as water. Today about one-quarter of the world’s global population lacks safe drinking water. Yet just 33% of articles on water issues are open access, while 60% articles on health are open access.
“Open science has the potential to make science more accessible, more connected to societal needs,” Nair-Bedoulle said. To move forward, she said, there is a need for cooperation, solidarity, cooperation, and normative instruments. To that end, UNESCO, with its 193 member states, adopted its Recommendation on Open Science in 2021, in which it offered definitions and guiding principles for open science practices.
“Countries are encouraged to promote the common understanding, to develop an enabling environment for open science, to invest in infrastructure services, training, education, digital literacy, capacity building, and to foster the culture of open science,” Nair-Bedoulle noted.
Challenges remain in advancing open science: institutional capacity, adequate infrastructures, reliable internet connectivity, as well as alignment of incentives and the revision of criteria for the evaluation of scientific excellence.
As UNESCO implements its recommendation, it is developing supporting tools, technical briefs, and collecting best practices. It is also analyzing open science financing, mechanisms, and incentives as it promotes open science capacity building, said Nair-Bedoulle.
On the second day of the conference, Arianna Becerril-García, executive director of Redalyc, shared lessons learned from 20 years of working with non-commercial, open access journals in Latin America.
“Open science is a unique opportunity to really achieve science as a global public good,” Becerril-García said. “If we keep this in mind, and really align our decisions, strategies, and investments, with this, we can build something better than the current scholarly system worldwide.”
However, the increasing control of knowledge production and communication by commercial corporations and restrictions on author rights are barriers. Becerril-García said the publishing transition to digital technologies has been slow and sometimes disappointing in the scientific communication sector.
Becerril-García shared that the shift to transformative agreements is also concerning, as it merely changes who is paying and perpetuates exclusion and inequality.
“Open science has the potential to really redraw our landscape, and this is not happening in many parts of the world,” she said. “The problem is that the ownership and control is still in the hands of commercial corporations… The problem is not the profit, the problem is the control, who is going to have the control of the future decision making. Also, in that approach, there is under-representation of the Global South.”
Equity must be at the center of discussions, maintained Becerril-García. It is not enough to have the article open, there needs to be the possibility to process it and interconnect with other information, which many commercial entities limit.
Becerril-García cautioned how the success of open access and open science is measured. She said libraries are key players and have an important role in the evolution of open science, including the creation of open infrastructure where everyone has the same opportunity to publish and to read. She advocates for immediate open access, responsible research assessment, and leveraging technology to democratize knowledge.
“We believe this approach is a better, healthier ecosystem…that is more equitable,” Becerril-García explained. “We need to think that academic institutions, the research sector, can have ownership and control of the sector.”
In Latin America, different initiatives—including hundreds of publishers and universities—are supporting diamond open access and institutional repositories, Becerril-García explained. There are more than 12,000 open access online journals published through a regional infrastructure that are serving open science. Added Becerril-García: “We are really providing the service for everybody with this universal benefit, but with a distributed investment.”
During the conference closing, Thanos Giannakopoulos, Chief Librarian of the UN Dag Hammarskjöld Library, echoed many speakers in highlighting the importance accelerating progress on sustainable development through open research: “Our decisions today will impact generations to come, as we were impacted by the decisions taken by the generations before us.”
SPARC again assisted in the preparations for this year’s event, which built on three previous meetings: the first and second UN Open Science Conferences (held in 2019 and 2021) and OpenCon United Nations Headquarters (held in 2018).