#OpenConCam: Where open (science | access | source | data) meet.

What is OpenCon?

OpenCon is a yearly event designed to bring together people who are dedicated to open in all its incarnations. It’s in such high demand, the only way to get in is by application, and most attendees are provided with scholarships to help with travel/accommodation costs.

We weren’t able to attend the international event, but thankfully there was a great satellite event running in Cambridge – OpenConCam.

OpenConCam was in itself a day filled with memorable talks and worthwhile collaborations, including:

PeerJ – (Sierra Williams)

PeerJ is an open access journal which focuses on methodological rigour  when publishing, rather than preferring groundbreaking new science – something particularly important for early career researchers. One of my favourite points from her talk was when she demonstrated the checklist that PeerJ uses to help authors disseminate their content effectively:

Open access in developing nations (Tapoka Mkandawire)

Many of us know from personal experience that accessing scientific publications even in wealthier western countries can be controversially difficult, so it’s hard to imagine how much more difficult this must be in developing countries. Thankfully, there are initiatives such as Africa Information Highway, Eifl, and Hinari which aim to make data and publications more accessible. She also discussed the cultural concept of ubuntu – sharing and caring for each other as a concept that works hand-in-hand with the open* movement.

Bullied into Bad Science (Laurent Gatto)

Bullied Into Bad Science is a campaign to help early career researchers who may be under pressure to omit or tweak their scientific results in order to gain a desired outcome or exciting publication. Laurent was clearly passionate about this subject: Sometimes the system pressures mean that successful academics are not necessarily good scientists – and things really shouldn’t be this way.

Queen B

This session was frantic! The basic premise was that the room divided into groups of 4, nominated a “queen bee” who presented a problem (in one minute), and then the group broke up and discussed possible solutions with others in the room for three minutes, reporting back over the span of two minutes. Lather, rinse, repeat until all members in a group have been queen bees. Topics I recall discussing included getting humanities more involved in open science, open source code in science, how to inspire people to publish in journals with strict open policies when they could go for a less principled journal more easily, and how to sell open* to the disinterested.

Hitting a moving target in Open Access advocacy  (Danny Kingsley)

Danny shared something dear to our hearts: Getting others involved in open. While she was specifically referring to open access, most points could easily be applied to open science, data, and source too. Her focus was on figuring out how to get the most “bang for buck” – that is, find and influence people who will pay off the most for the least effort.

Undergrads, for example, aren’t great targets as they mostly don’t continue in academia, but PIs, and government bodies may be more useful, because they have much more influence if they’re sold on open access. Similarly, sometimes it makes more sense to influence decision makers and get them to evangelise for you, if you don’t have enough authority to impress people. Make sensible decisions, and don’t run up against brick walls repeatedly if it isn’t paying off!

Focus Groups

After lunch, we had an unconference-style set of sessions, where everyone nominated topics they were interested in, and added stars beside ideas they themselves were interested in attending. The resulting sessions were:

  • Self-care in Open: Many of us volunteer time outside a normal 9-5 job to help promote open, and the environment can be discouraging or rough sometimes – not everyone is as keep on open as we are! Suggestions presented by Kirstie Whitaker included working with micro-ambitions (turning your work into small, achievable chunks rather than trying to conquer everything), and thinking of success as a spectrum. A small win is still a win!
  • Open + inclusive: Laurent Gatto pointed out in a blog post earlier this year that the Open movements aren’t always as…. open as they should be. Sometimes Open Science can fall down in the same places less open science falls down – not making sure to have a decent balance of ethnicities, genders, sexual orientation, etc. Can we do better?

  • Open source code in science: If you’re an InterMiner, you’re probably already pretty keen on open source scientific software and can see the benefit of it – but not everyone does. Many, many papers that use code to produce their scientific results don’t expose that code. But if the code isn’t in the paper, or linked to it openly in some way… how was it peer reviewed? If the code is wrong, so is the science it produces. I proposed this discussion topic, and really enjoyed perspectives from my team mates. Some of the ideas generated included:
    • Share dummy data to run your code on, if the data are proprietary or there are privacy issues.
    • Try to encourage journals to have software availability statements
    • Encouraging researchers to share their code, even if it’s only a few lines. After all, if you’ve written 6 lines of code to configure an R plot, whilst it might seem insignificant – that’s actually really easy to peer review and correct mistakes! By comparison, bigger software packages can be hundreds, thousands, or even millions of lines of code. The thought of trying to review that (beyond reviewing quality metrics like testing, documentation, and commenting) makes me a bit scared.
  • Open in the humanities: This is a fascinating subject, and I don’t think many (any?) of the audience members were in the humanities. We raised a lot of questions about the shape of humanities data.

Opening the lab door (Christie Bahlai)

After the focus groups, Christie Bahlai skyped in to talk about running an open lab. She shared some of the different types of pushback against open science:

  • Those who consider themselves too busy to share
  • People who have been pushed from ‘busy’ status to actively hostile against open science, perhaps when they were asked to participate further and didn’t wish to
  • The worried –  people who have legitimate concerns about open science (I’m sure I’m not the only person who doesn’t really believe in “anonymised personal data”).
  • The unheard – those who are disadvantaged and marginalised already worry that practising open will marginalise them further. How can we protect these people?

She also talked about getting people involved in open as early as possible, including introductions to open as part of the undergrad curriculum:

A few more of her tips:

  • Get students’ feet wet in open science by slowly introducing them to the concepts using examples in their own fields – examples they’ll care about.
  • Share your lab policies openly and don’t tolerate the “brilliant jerk” – at the end of the day no matter how productive they are, they’re still jerks.
  • Keep science a kind place. Show others that you too can fail publicly, and fail often.
  • Share your lesson plans openly, too! Christie’s “Reproducible quantitative methods” curriculum is designed to provide a good introduction to open, reproducible data wrangling using R and GitHub.

The open source investigation revolution (Eliot Higgins)

This talk was an out-of-the-blue surprise. Rather than focusing on academia like most of the previous talks, Eliot shared how open videos, photos, and “facts” on the web can be verified for journalism. If you’ve heard of doxxing, you’ll know a bit about the techniques Eliot described, using social media, satellite imagery, and other online tools to track people who don’t want to be tracked – but this time, for Good. He described how some of the white supremacist rally leaders were identified, as well as verifying missile attacks in Syria – including who perpetrated them and who was lying about it.

This talk stilled twitter’s usually vibrant #OpenConCam discussions to a halt, probably due to the riot of emotions it induced in most of the participants. We’d been shown highly disturbing images, felt fear wondering how these techniques could be misused, and we awed by the massive importance of what we’re seeing, no matter how awful it was. I’m sure I wasn’t the only person torn between wishing I’d never seen it and knowing that I had to watch it, because burying our heads in the sand isn’t an option either.


OpenCon 2018 hasn’t been announced yet, but this year, all around the world, there are still satellite events like the one I attended. If you haven’t attended a conference about working openly before, this is a great way to get a taste – or if you’re a die-hard enthusiast, you’ll get the chance to meet like-minded individuals and be inspired!