OpenCon: An Unexpected Journey

In this post, I’ll chronicle my journey to OpenCon 2015 and the OpenCon community’s influence on my work!

The Invitation

In early 2015, I saw a flyer for a roundtable discussion on scientific publishing on my campus. It promised snacks and beer to facilitate a forum on academic publishing, and its influence on scientists. At that point, I’d been in grad school pursuing my PhD in neuroscience for about three years and I’d encountered plenty of  “high impact factor at all costs” and anti-data sharing rhetoric. Heck, I’d even bought the argument against open science as a technician and then junior graduate student. During my PhD, however, the flaws in the logic (and the system) became glaring and impossible to brush off by saying “that’s just the way science works”.  The use of publications as academic currency, and the time and money that scientists invest in the closed publishing industry seemed to stand in direct opposition to the collaborative spirit and pursuit of knowledge that lie at the heart of scientific inquiry. I wanted to work on solutions that might help science live up to its own promise.

So, I skipped out of lab a little early and went to talk about open science and the future of scientific publishing with Erick Turner, Melissa Haendel, and Robin Champieux. As a PhD candidate who spent most of my time in the lab, it was my first exposure to the open science movement. Discussing solutions with people who valued my perspective was a welcome change to the environment in lab. I left the event inspired to get involved – but unsure how to start.

How to start a project from scratch? It’s always intimidating, but you’ll be glad you did!

Photo credit: Right to Research Coalition

Why was I unsure? As a student in the US, I don’t “own” my data. Without permission from my supervisor, I can not share data, code, or methods. As is often the case, my PhD supervisors were worried about being “scooped”, distrustful of any avenues for scientific output outside of traditional publishing, and generally uninterested in open access and preprints.

In this environment, I didn’t know how I could become open. Looking back I realize I was thinking of openness as an all or nothing proposition.  In reality, moving one’s entire scientific workflow – particularly in a closed environment without control of data and resources – can be more realistically achieved step by step. A total switch to openness wasn’t possible for me, but I wanted to do something and was ready to learn more.

I didn’t know it at the time, but Scholarly Communication Librarian Robin Champieux had organized the event after attending OpenCon 2014. This was the first OpenCon, organized in Washington DC bye Right to Research Coalition, The Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC), and community members. Robin’s engagement with OpenCon sparked her to write a grant titled “Catalyzing a Culture of Open Science” to support open science advocacy and scientific communication at my university. This grant was funded by the National Network of Libraries of Medicine, and set the stage for greater involvement by me and other students. Beyond funding events at OHSU, the grant included two travel awards to send students to OpenCon.

As Robin shared with me, she learned at that first OpenCon that “armed with the right information and enough practical pathways, early career researchers have the potential to change the culture of scientific communication.”  She set out to help OHSU’s graduate students and postdocs do just that.

The First Journey

OpenCon is a unique conference and community. I was not really sure what to expect, the only meeting I’d ever been to were large scientific conferences. OpenCon is a relatively small conference (~200 people) that brings students and researchers together from across academia  to discuss Open Access, Open Data, and Open Education.


OpenCon 2015 group photo.

Photo credit: Right to Research Coalition

I met librarians, humanities researchers, and scientists from many different fields. As a “bench scientist” it was refreshing to discuss issues with paleontologists, ecologists, scholarly and scientific communications experts, librarians, and tool builders. It was also refreshing to see things happen quickly. The updates from OpenCon 2014 projects floored me, as I come from a world where things move slowly. Importantly, as a privileged person from North America, OpenCon introduced me to people from all over the globe and their projects, struggles, and academic climates. Beyond meeting academics face to face from institutions that can not afford costly journal subscriptions, I got a global and interdisciplinary perspective on what works (and what doesn’t).


It adds up! The argument that anyone associated with an institution can get access to research is elitist and antithetical to the spirit of science.

Illustration credit: Jorge Cham

The advocacy day at OpenCon 2015 was an experience unlike any I’d ever had. In the morning, panelists and speakers discussed the state of affairs for open issues in the EU. After lunch, OpenCon organizers arranged meetings with policymakers, funders, and organizations to discuss the open movement’s priorities.


Spectacular old world splendor in Brussels at OpenCon 2015 advocacy day.

Photo credit: Right to Research Coalition

Pirate Party’s Julia Reda speaking at OpenCon 2015.

Photo credit: Right to Research Coalition

The meetings with policy makers were the first experience in science advocacy I’d ever had. Direct interaction with leaders and policy makers helped me to better understand the role of the scientist in politics. These interactions showed me that it was my job, even my duty, to communicate with political leadership. At the end of the day, I’d heard the perspectives of people from all around the world working for an open future for research.  It was a truly transformative experience!

Wikipedia’s Jimmy Wales speaking at closing reception of OpenCon 2015.

Photo credit: Right to Research Coalition


Back in the Field

When I returned home, I wanted to use what I had learned and the OpenCon network to advance open science in the Pacific Northwest. But how? Robin and I joined forced to develop a project that would build three key areas critical to open science– skills, community, and advocacy.


Researchers need  skills in order to use tools that facilitate openness (like GitHub and open source programming languages for data analysis). Code literacy helps scientists use the best tools for their research, and not default to outdated research workflows. The Open Insight series, developed in collaboration with fellow neuroscientist Daniela Saderi and librarians Robin Champieux and Erin Foster, exposed researchers to open source tools and open science concepts through workshops and discussion. Through Open Insight and other collaborations, we have covered Git and GitHub, building web apps, basic R stats, and discussed the future of data with scientific policy leaders. This year, skill building will continue through the OHSU Code Club Study Group, which will also help to build and maintain community.



Women in Science PDX annual mixer at Oregon Museum of Science and Industry.

Photo credit Women in Science PDX

Building skills in a vacuum is hard. Maybe impossible. This is where community becomes critical. When you’re in a lab that uses Excel and MatLab, there is little incentive to move to a new language. It’s important to have a local community of people who can answer questions, puzzle through things, show you how they work, and show off the new tool that they just learned. Building community enables scientists to gain exposure to new tools, workflows, and perspective from other technical communities. Expanding my scientific community to include people from across scientific spectrum, and the open source community has enhanced my scientific productivity and helped me develop leadership and project management skills. I continued to host events to bring the scientific and open source community together, including a three part workshop on career development and negotiation for women in technical fields with Jessica Williams, a talk on Open Science at the Donuts.js meetup.

To continue the theme of local community building within Portland’s diverse scientific and tech communities, the Open Insight team and I collaborated with an incredible group of scientists, engineers, and coders to produce Science Hack Day Portland in October. OpenCon alum Jenny Molloy spoke about hacking hardware, Mozilla’s

Dietrich Ayala spoke about harnessing the power of the internet of things for people rather than corporate gain, and Hack Oregon founder Catherine Nikolovski talked about civic tech and hacking open government data. Mozilla donated Raspberry Pi and hardware for the event, and the indispensable Alex Challey of Portland State University’s Science Support Shop brought along three 3-D printers and managed the design workstation for people to prototype on site. At the event, I lead a molecular biology team to use CRISPR technology to edit the yeast genome with hacked equipment. It was a fantastic event, and the 3D printers ran all night with 35 print jobs making over 75 unique objects during the 24 hour hack – more than a few scientists wrote their first line of code at this event! More on the teams and projects can be found here.

This year, I am excited to be on the organizing team for csv,conf,v3 coming to Portland next year, the local open science and data community continues to grow (ahem, pitch you talk by 2/15).


The third piece is advocacy. The scientific system has been built up around the traditional, closed, scientific publishing and academic system. This means the policies that govern the evaluation of a scientist’s contributions may not value open source, data sharing, and creation of other open resources. Scientists need to learn advocacy and communication skills to advocate for their needs to institutional and funding agency policy making bodies. We are the only ones who can do this job – as articulated nicely by Alexandra Erwin. My OpenCon experience was a first foray into advocacy. When I returned to campus, I reframed my student representative committee service as a chance to learn how the policy “sausage” gets made at my institution.

Back to the Well

I traveled to Washington DC for the third OpenCon in November of 2016. Prior to OpenCon, Kirstie Whitaker and I developed a website to collect “agony aunt” style questions and answers to issues facing researchers who want to work openly called Open Advice. At OpenCon, we gathered a group of contributors together and worked on the site. The work is ongoing, so feel free to contribute a question or an answer!

Group Photo OpenCon 2016.

Photo credit: Right to Research Coalition

OpenCon’s unique Advocacy Day matches conference attendees with representatives or interest groups to advocate for policies to support open science. This year, advocacy day took place just six days after the presidential election and the mood in DC was unsettled.I joined a group of students and librarians from around Oregon lead by Portland State librarian Emily Ford, met with Ron Wyden’s staff to discuss the Fair Access to Science and Technology Act (FASTR).

The Oregon OpenCon delegation at Ron Wyden’s office.

Photo credit: Daniela Saderi

I then rushed across town to lead a meeting of 20 OpenCon attendees with the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) with Dr. George Strawn, Board Director for the Policy and Global Affairs Division at the National Academy of Sciences, and Dr. Marcia McNutt, President of the National Academy of Sciences. We advocated for data sharing and open access, more support for early career researchers, voiced our concerns about diversity and inclusion in the sciences.

The gilded ceiling at the National Academy of Sciences.

Photo credit: Danielle Robinson

Beginning in 2014, Robin’s trip to OpenCon and involvement with the community brought open issues to the forefront on our campus and brought me into the fold through on-campus events. My trip to OpenCon 2015, sponsored by Robin’s NLM grant, sparked a larger collaboration that has engaged hundreds of of researchers. In 2016, two more students went to OpenCon sponsored by the OHSU library. This is how a local network grows and this is how an institution demonstrates is commitment to open science In 2016, I received a Mozilla Science fellowship, enabling me to dedicate more time to my open science projects and further develop my advocacy skills. None of this would have happened if Robin hadn’t gone to OpenCon 2014.

OpenCon, Robin said, “has not only sparked our strategies for making open science the norm at OHSU, it also influenced the career trajectories and success of everyone we’ve sent.  It is really amazing how influential it’s been.”

If you’re considering getting involved with a local OpenCon event or starting a local group – DO IT. It’s a vibrant and growing community that’s opened my eyes to many resources, networks, and diverse perspectives on openness and advocacy. I’m happy to chat if you want to know more.

Achintya Rao, Kirstie Whitaker, Danielle Robinson at OpenCon 2016.

Photo credit: Right to Research Coalition