What is an Open Science Lab? And how to build one in 10 steps?

TU Delft Library meeting the Open Science Lab at TIB Hannover

TU Delft Library meeting the Open Science Lab at TIB Hannover – photo by Christian Hauschke from the Open Science Lab

Written by*: Frederique Belliard1, Ina Blümel2, Alastair Dunning1, Christian Hauschke2, Lambert Heller2, Marta Teperek1 and Wilma van Wezenbeek1 

* – authors in alphabetical order by surname

1 – TU Delft Library

2 – Open Science Lab, TIB


TU Delft has recently launched its Open Science Programme. One of its ambitions is to explore the feasibility of an Open Science Lab at TU Delft. Such an Open Science Lab “could play a leading role in the development and innovation of (digital) Open Science tools, workflows and infrastructures for scientific analysis and communication. It can be a place for researchers and teachers to work across disciplines and (…) experiment, develop and showcase new ways of doing research and education in the open era.” 

But to find out more we decided to ask the experts for advice and inspiration and visited the Open Science Lab at TIB Hannover on 17 & 18 February 2020.

The Open Science Lab at TIB Hannover

Lambert Heller, Ina Blümel and Christian Hauschke from TIB Hannover proved to be extremely generous hosts and shared with us 10 hours of their time – all spent on practice exchange. We were all impressed with how, in 7 years, the Open Science Lab transformed from an idea and two people behind it to a comprehensive programme with Open Science at the heart with multiple cutting-edge projects related to scholarly communication running in parallel.

The work done by the Open Science Lab focuses on two main topics:

  • Research Information Services – new metrics, indicators, news systems for discovery of research networks (such as VIVO)
  • Library transformation – how innovation could transform existing library services in an open ecosystem? (for example, how could existing library collections become more discoverable and searchable?)

Openness at the core

Colleagues from the Open Science Lab explained how openness is central to their everyday working practices. It is embedded not only in the projects they are working on (open-source code development, opening up research outputs, making library collections more accessible), but also in how they share their work within the team – all documents are open and accessible to everyone (the team’s wiki is in addition open to the entire library) 

The principle of openness and the willingness to engage in the discussion also stimulates new collaborations, is attracting skilled staff to join the team and helps when applying for grants. Interestingly, most of the projects and staff members at the Open Science Lab are funded by project money.

How to build & run an Open Science Lab in 10 Steps

So? How to get started?

While explaining their story to us, colleagues from the Open Science Lab created a 10 step recipe for building and running an Open Science Lab:

  1. Support a diversity of interests among team members, from technological nuts & bolts up to policies and business models. Of course, diversity also extends to gender, nationality, and different backgrounds of all kinds.
  2. Get involved with “the rest of the library” and other research support services, be inviting to modular careers, embed the lab in education programs for research support staff.
  3. Integrate students/trainees like other regular team members, support them in developing ideas and transfer responsibility in practical projects. Form a strong link to university education to maintain the steady flow of talented young people.
  4. Create an environment that fosters creativity – experiment, allow projects and people to fail, embrace a high-risk strategy. Innovation without risk is not very likely to happen.
  5. Have an eye on your social environment, be empathetic towards diverse user groups, e.g. research administrators – most of all, meet and talk with them. Engage with a broad range of communities (conferences, networking, …) – time consuming but indispensable.
  6. Publish – not to collect citations, but to foster applications in said communities. In libraries or other research support departments, engage in research in order to make services better, but ultimately, focus on developing services.
  7. Adopt openness as a mindset, including unusual ways beyond default publishing formats, like e.g. submit your research proposals to an open access repository. 
  8. Detect trends and identify the gaps. What might be important in 10 years from now, but isn’t well enough recognized yet?
  9. Avoid focusing solely on technical developments – user engagement and uptake by research communities is key.
  10. Stay up to date and keep on moving. Transfer new services that are production-ready to a place in the library where they can be maintained in the long run. And then, iterate, improve or focus on entirely new ideas.

Myriad of inspiring initiatives and projects

In addition to gaining a better understanding of the Open Science Lab, we have also seen an impressive demo of VIVO in action, exchanged views on collaboration with commercial providers (and desirable principles behind such collaborations), spoke about tactics for effective community engagement, and the European Open Science Cloud. 

We have also learnt about interesting projects and resources we weren’t aware of – here are some examples:

Take-home messages

We all found the practice exchange meeting very inspiring and came back to TU Delft full of new ideas. Some final take-home messages we wanted to share:

  • Frederique was amazed by their enthusiasm and passion and was inspired by their willingness to share their experiences and their best practices.  The Open Science lab team has managed to build over the years a very attractive and knowledgeable environment that fosters creativity and stimulates motivation. Together we can achieve more and change the way we do science for the better. Frederique particularly appreciated their insights on how to make the library attractive for IT students so they can develop innovative and cool products for our community.
  • What struck Alastair was that from a small team at the start the Open Science Lab has grown to incorporate research, education (students of Hannover University of Applied Sciences and Arts Information Management study programme were undertaking thesis work on Open Science issues) and library services. It demonstrates how powerful the concept of open is when it can touch upon so many different aspects of university life. 
  • Marta was particularly inspired to see the importance of shared values in practice. While these were not named during the meeting, it was clear that colleagues from the Open Science Lab all valued openness, transparency and willingness to collaborate. This not only helped them to build a strong, dynamic team, happy to work together, but also to attract talented people. One often hears about the difficulties with hiring skilled software developers due to lower salaries in academia. There are several software developers at the Open Science Lab, who joined the team because of their motivation to work on open source projects and to contribute to a better scholarly communication ecosystem.
  • Wilma valued the in-depth discussions we had, e.g. how R&D (or an open science lab) can be effective next to a running organisation to work as catalyst and stimulator, but that you also need a process to transfer (almost-finished) products to the running organisation. Because you need to allocate and have time for new stuff and reflection within the lab. Having said that we learned that TIB (Open Science Lab) is slightly moving to or touching upon application or services, and tries to become a bit less dependent on grants. We even dared to share the thought that the word open science might become redundant (no, it should in future become redundant!), so what is it the Lab actually puts in motion? Finally, the warning Lambert gave us that we should avoid becoming a repair shop for researchers, was something to think about. It strengthens the vision that we (as Library, or supporting service) should be able to support the many, with an eye & hand for the few (but not the other way around). And Wilma definitely wants to take part in a book sprint. Perhaps we could do our next round of National Programme Open Science 2020-2030 in The Netherlands with a book sprint? 

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