Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The OA Interviews: Toma Susi, physicist, University of Vienna

Since the birth of the open access movement in 2002, demands for greater openness and transparency in the research process have both grown and broadened. 

Today there are calls not just for OA to research papers, but (amongst other things) to the underlying data, to peer review reports, and to lab notebooks. We have also seen a new term emerge to encompass these different trends: open science.
Toma Susi

In response to these developments, earlier this year the Research Ideas & Outcomes (RIO) Journal was launched. 

RIO’s mission is to open up the entire research cycle — by publishing project proposals, data, methods, workflows, software, project reports and research articles. These will all be made freely available on a single collaborative platform. 

And to complete the picture, RIO uses a transparent, open and public peer-review process. The goal: to “catalyse change in research communication by publishing ideas, proposals and outcomes in order to increase transparency, trust and efficiency of the whole research ecosystem.”

Importantly, RIO is not intended for scientists alone. It is seeking content from all areas of academic research, including science, technology, humanities and the social sciences.

Unsurprisingly perhaps, the first grant proposal made openly available on RIO (on 17th December) was published by a physicist — Finnish-born Toma Susi, who is based at the University of Vienna in Austria.

Susi’s proposal — which has already received funding from the Austrian Science Fund (FWF) — is for a project called “Heteroatom quantum corrals and nanoplasmonics in graphene” (HeQuCoG). This is focused on the controlled manipulation of matter on the scale of atoms.

More specifically, the aim is to “to create atomically precise structures consisting of silicon and phosphorus atoms embedded in the lattice of graphene using a combination of ion implantation, first principles modelling and electron microscopy.”

The research has no specific application in mind but, as Susi points out, if “we are able to control the composition of matter on the atomic scale with such precision, there are bound to be eventual uses for the technology.”

Below Susi answers some questions I put to him about his proposal, and his experience of publishing on RIO.

The interview begins …

RP: Can you start by saying what is new and different about the open access journal RIO, and why that is appealing to you?

TS: Personally, the whole idea of publishing all stages of the research cycle was something even I had not considered could or should be done. However, if one thinks about it objectively, in terms of an optimal way to advance science, it does make perfect sense. At the same time, as a working scientist, I can see how challenging a change of mind-set this will be… which makes me want to do what I can to support the effort. 

RP: Are you associated with the journal in any way — e.g. on the editorial board?

TS: I have volunteered to be a physics subject editor for the journal, although I have not yet handled any articles.

RP: You published a grant proposal in the journal, which is certainly unusual (perhaps a first?). Why did you do so, and how much (if anything) did you pay to do so?

TS: I should first point out that although rare, this was by no means the first instance. There are some previous proposals — see for instance here, here, and here.

However, RIO is the first attempt to do this systematically across disciplines, with open pre- or post-publication peer review.

The reason for me to do it was that I had received funding recently for a project that I am passionate about, and whose proposal I was quite proud of. At the same time, following my long-term interest in open access and open science, I had offered my services for RIO. Thus I felt I should lead by example in promoting openness in science funding by being one of the first to publish a grant proposal there. The recent RIO editorial gives a good account of the underlying philosophy.

As a volunteer editor, I was allowed to publish one article for free in RIO, which I used to publish the proposal. RIO’s normal pricing is explained here, and it would also have been no problem to fund the publication from my FWF grant.

Instinctively scary

RP: Writing about your experience you have said that publishing a grant proposal is an “instinctively scary” thing to do. Can you expand on that, and say something about both the benefits and the potential risks of publishing a grant proposal?

TS: I said instinctively, because there was an almost visceral reaction to the idea; to give away MY ideas, to let other people take advantage of MY work! But when one steps back from the competitive reality of being a scientist, it should become obvious this is exactly the desirable outcome for science. But the reaction is what it is.

In terms of potential risks, a fear of being ‘scooped’ is probably the big one. I have made a proposal, based on all my expertise and knowledge, to pursue a certain specific research direction. If someone else reads the plan and pursues it, and is perhaps a bit luckier or a bit more hard working, they might reach and publish the results before I can. The way the journal system is, this would likely result in them getting more credit and more accolades for the work.

As for potential benefits, I do hope I might get additional exposure for my work, and for my funder. I’m personally very excited about the project, and extremely grateful for the FWF for still funding risky and curiosity-driven research. Since they seem to be one of the more forward-looking funders out there in terms of open access and so on, I hope being on the cutting edge in open research funding can contribute to that. 

And of course, if someone does scoop me, at least they have to cite the proposal now:

RP: I believe it would be quite hard for other researchers to scoop you due to the lab conditions required. Would other researchers be far more cautious than you in publishing a grant proposal?

TS: The proposal is indeed technically challenging, with only about a dozen groups in the world who would be placed to pursue it. So certainly publishing this was an easier choice than in many cases. Other researchers would have to weight those considerations for themselves.

I think the degree of caution will depend on the field in general, and on each proposal in particular. However, I think there is an extra difficulty in being amongst the first, and hopefully my example would at least put this option on more peoples’ radars.

RP: As you noted, this is a proposal for which you have already received funding. Would you have published it if you didn’t yet have funding? Or might it have been more useful to do it before?

TS: That’s right. It might indeed have been useful to publish beforehand and receive constructive feedback on the project. However, I doubt I would have considered publishing it before getting funded, that would have felt too risky. Alternatively, if I had gotten rejected and known I would not be able to pursue the plan further, I might have considered publishing then.

RP: How much money is the grant?

TS: The three-year grant is for 323,972.25 €, which is public information. 

In layman’s terms

RP: I believe the grant is for work on atomic-scale engineering, but can you say something in layman’s terms about what your research is, and the likely applications? If a member of the public asked you why you should be funded to do the research what would you say?

TS: We are aiming to precisely control the placement of heavier atoms in the lattice of graphene using an electron microscope as an engineering tool.

There are some potential applications in plasmonics, i.e. the control of the interaction of light with the electrons of the material, but really, the project is more about pushing the boundaries of the possible. No matter what the technical requirements now are, if we are able to control the composition of matter on the atomic scale with such precision, there are bound to be eventual uses for the technology. 

So my answer to a member of the public would be: to show we can design materials with atomic precision. You can find a comprehensive explanation of the original research on my blog.

RP: Presumably this is for follow-up research to that described in your 2014 Physical Review Letters paper. If so, what is the next step?

TS: In terms of the research, the next steps are exactly as described in the published proposal! The project started running in September 2015, and we are now working on sample preparation and the first modelling steps as planned.

I have a PhD student starting on the project at the end of January, and we’ll definitely think about publishing his thesis plan openly, too, alongside other outputs.

RP: I think RIO offers a basic publishing service. So, for instance, researchers have to type in and format their publications. How long did it take you to do this, and how much of a disincentive do you think this might be for researchers who are not as enthusiastic about open access as you are?

TS: There’s no formatting as such (apart from the possibility to do italics or bold etc), but rather, the writing tool itself takes care of typesetting automatically (based on a built-in template). So, there’s actually less for the author to do than in editing a normal Word or LaTeX manuscript. 

For my proposal, I copied in the text of my original OS X Pages document, which took just a few minutes. Re-inserting citations and figures took perhaps two hours more, which I hope they can somehow streamline in the future.

All in all, it was one of the more painless publishing experiences I have had, so hard to see it as much of a disincentive.

Please see my blog post for some more details on the process.

Tough sell

RP: To put it more bluntly, would anyone who was not (as you are) a committed OA advocate really have much interest in following your example?

TS: At this point, I don’t doubt this is a bit of a tough sell to get your typical scientist interested. But on the other hand, this does yield a citable publication with very little extra effort, so depending on how much attention these receive, it might well prove attractive more generally. However, the longer term prospect is that since funders have good reasons to encourage or even mandate grant publications, the push might come from them.

RP: What licensing issues arise in publishing a grant proposal? Are they different to publishing a research paper?

TS: Figure copyrights were the main issue. I had used several figures from the literature to illustrate my ideas (with the proper citation, of course). If I had written for example a review article, the common practice would had been to obtain reuse rights to the figures via Rightslink. However, since RIO content is CC BY 4.0 licensed and machine-readable, that would had resulted in potential problems along the line. Thus we went to the extra effort to ask the original authors for copyright-free versions of their figures, which we received without exception within a week.

RP: I think you also published the grant review reports alongside the proposal. Is open peer review obligatory with RIO? Should it be?

TS: We did, after passing a request through the funder to the original referees (as they had not agreed to the reports being public originally), both of whom gave permission. In general, peer review with RIO is mandatorily public, as fits the philosophy of the journal.

RP: What kind of feedback have you had? Have you, for instance, had any new offers to collaborate as a result?

TS: I think it’s still too early to see whether publishing the proposal will result in offers for collaboration or useful new connections. However, I did receive a fair bit of feedback from my collaborators when I floated the idea of publishing the proposal, and from the people whose figures I had used in the original plan when I asked for their permissions to reuse them. Even to my surprise, all the feedback I got was very supporting and encouraging.

RP: What other issues arose as a result of publishing your grant proposal, and what are your expectations for RIO going forward?

TS: No other issues, so far the process has been quite positive. It remains to be seen what effects the publication will have.

As for my expectations for RIO, I fear that they will have a hard time in getting significant uptake for their more ambitious initiatives, but I do hope the time is ripe and we’re in for a pleasant surprise. 

RP: Thank you very much for taking the time to answer my questions.

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