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Astronomy as an example for an open science

When a former Max Planck colleague who now works at the Stifterverband, a public-private think-tank, called me in October and asked if I wanted to take part in a workshop about open science, I was unsure what astronomy could offer in this regard. However, when simply writing up the tools and processes many astronomers use (and take for granted), it quickly becomes clear that astronomy is very much an open science already.

In the spirit of open science, I would like to document here my preparation for the discussion section of the workshop tomorrow.

What does openness in astronomy mean?

  • Open data: access to raw data (e.g. through the ESO archive) as well as access to surveys (e.g. through VizieR) and meta-data (e.g. through Simbad). The access is available for everyone and in most cases either in near real-time or after a proprietary period of maximum 12 months (in most cases).
  • Open source: access to scripts, libraries, programming tools, codes, … that are used to analyse the raw data and derive scientific results. In the most open projects (such as astropy), even the development process is open and anyone can contribute via e.g. github. Platforms such the Astrophysics Source Code Library, on the other hand, publish the final code itself and make it searchable through standard literature search engines.
  • Open access means free and unimpeded access to consolidated scientific results as published in peer-reviewed journals. While many relevant astronomical journals, including the just recently launched Nature Astronomy, are not open access by themselves, most (all relevant?) journals now allow publishing the author’s copy on preprint servers such as on the arXiv. Most current research articles can be found on “astro-ph” (the astrophysics’ section of the arXiv). Still troublesome, however, are technical articles (e.g. about telescope or instrumentation projects), that are published in the SPIE proceedings. A google search for the fulltext of the article, including “filetype:pdf” as a further filter, often reveals the author’s copy, however. In some cases, authors can “rebel” against the copyright notice they typically have to sign in order to publish an article (see example below for one of the articles published during my Ph.D.).


Example of a modified copyright agreement granting only a non-exclusive license to the publisher and thus allowing to publish my own article on my homepage or on preprint servers.

  • Apart from open data, open source and open access, open science can also encompass outreach and communicating with the public. This can be in more traditional “teaching” ways through blogs (e.g. the German SciLogs platform on which I have blogged about my trips to Chile during my Ph.D. and later), talks, open house days etc., but in some cases it can also mean directly embedding citizens in your research project, such as demonstrated successfully by the GalaxyZoo project that involves citizens to classify galaxy morphologies, a task in which humans have so far been better than machines.
  • Open science should can also include transparent selection procedures. After all, the particular selection of proposals, job candidates, laureates etc. can shape the de-facto view of a field for a long time and therefore comes with big influence and power. This could, for example, mean to publish the criteria which will be used to select a candidate for a job and to democratically nominate committees that decide about proposals and prizes. This is partly the case in astronomy, e.g. the committees that help select proposals for the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft are elected by the scientific staff themselves.
  • Last, but not least, I believe open science should also include democratic structures in universities and research institutes. Usually, in German universities, there are “Fachschaften” that have a say on the selection of professors, and the Max Planck society sponsors one of the largest Ph.D. networks in the country, the Max Planck PhDnet. On the more senior, but not yet tenured, level, however, the situation is less good. Attempts to form a postdoc network within the Max Planck Society have not been greeted with sympathy in several institutes as some directors fear to lose influence if juniors also have a say. This is, however, not specific to astronomy, but rather a general symptom of the research and higher education landscape in Germany.

Why do we promote open-ness in astronomy?

Astronomy is a highly competitive field (typically only one out of 20 astronomy Ph.D.s eventually gets a tenured research position). Open-ness in astronomy would not be supported if it weren’t also promoting competitiveness and productivity.

  • Regarding data, observatories, that run big telescopes, promote open science in order to increase the observers’ desire to quickly publish “their” data (lest others “steal” them). Top-nodge data are often publicly available from the start. The first observations with the next, biggest space telescope will be open access from day 1, as announced today. The first observations for instruments built for the European Southern Observatory ESO, are also usually publicly available from the start, e.g. these GRAVITY science verification data. Other data are usually openly accessible after a 12 month “proprietary period”. This can sometimes be in conflict with the “owners” (PIs) of the data.
  • Regarding open source, the motivation to publish tools and software code is manifold: the author(s) of the code publish it in order to promote their code (and collect citations to associated research papers), but also so that others can contribute in the development. Last but not least, publication is the best way to help others in finding bugs and errors and therefore make your own research more credible.
  • Open access is in the interest of everyone except scrupulous publishers who want to make a profit from publicly financed research. It helps to promote science and the scientific method, also in the wider society, if the basic results are openly accessible. And it helps researchers from poorer countries who cannot afford paying expensive subscription fees to Nature, Science et al.
  • Public outreach also helps everyone, but can be a burden for researchers who also have to teach / supervise students, manage projects, deal with bureaucracy and publish, publish, publish. Motivations to nevertheless indulge in public outreach reach from simple PR for your own research (in order to attract more research money or to boost one’s ego…), but can also include serious collaboration with the public (see GalaxyZoo). Often the motivation for being active in public outreach is also to promote the scientific method (e.g. the Science March initiatives) or a feeling of a moral obligation as publicly funded research should also be of benefit for the public.
  • Transparent selection procedures and democratic structures, finally, are also a win-win situation: researchers gain trust in the process and will therefore try harder to win prizes, fellowships and jobs. The academic institutions, on the other hand, win by becoming more attractive to a wider range of (international) applicants. The only downside is an increased effort of documentation / communication, but I believe the benefits well outweigh the costs.

I am interested to see the discussion tomorrow and will try to report back with a view from the other participants / fields as well!

Update 15 Nov:

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