Open Science in Autism Research: A Conversation with Amy Pearson and Daniel Poole | Spectrum


Amy Pearson

Lecturer in psychologyUniversity of Sunderland


Daniel Poole

ResearcherUniversity of Sheffield

For more than a decade, open research has garnered broad support from the scientific community, including autism researchers. But few people in the field regularly use established open scientific methods.

To help remedy this problem, a team of autism researchers in the UK shared some practical advice in an editorial published this month in Autism. These tips grew out of an online workshop in 2021 which, in turn, grew out of a 2020 petition to facilitate transparency in the publishing process, started by editorial co-author Hannah Hobson, Senior Lecturer in psychology at the University of York. The group also has a website – called Open Autism Research – with resources for lab discussions and a link to an ongoing directory of open science autism research.

Spectrum spoke with two of the editorial’s co-authors about the current push for open autism science while Hobson is on furlough. Daniel Poole, Research Fellow in Psychology at the University of Sheffield, and Amy Pearson, Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Sunderland, shared their thoughts on the challenges of implementing open science in the field and how to overcome them.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Spectrum: What is open research?

Daniel Pool: Open research refers to a set of different techniques and methods, focused on improving reliability and transparency, which helps to better understand how we arrived at the conclusions we have drawn so that others can check them.

S: Why is there a push for open science?

Amy Pearson: There have been issues, particularly in psychology, over the years where widely accepted research has been found to be poorly replicated. There has been a willingness to try to create more rigorous approaches to conducting research, developing theories, and testing those theories.

S: What are examples of open research methods that could apply to the field of autism?

DP: There are different forms of what is called “pre-registration”: a researcher says what he is going to do before carrying out a study. Ideally, this would be a sort of checklist of the planning and analysis methods they are going to perform. The gold standard is now what is called a “registered ratio”. The pre-registration document is peer-reviewed and the work is accepted for publication before the research is conducted.

Another example is the use of open materials and the sharing of resources that are used in research. Researchers can see if they are able to perform the same analysis as the study authors. And there are additional benefits to sharing data: you can collect a lot of data on autistic people and another researcher may be able to use that data without requiring autistic people to come back to participate in a whole series additional studies.

S: What are some of the challenges that have prevented widespread adoption of open science in autism research?

PA: One is training; Much of the practice of open science relies on learning how to use and implement the methods – things such as learning different forms of data analysis or how to organize a code to make it available to someone else. Many researchers struggle to find the time to do this.

It is also a challenge on the publishing side. There are a fairly limited number of journals created to receive registered reports. Most autism journals do not have the capacity to do this at this time.

S: Your editorial notes some of the challenges of integrating qualitative research into an open science framework. How do you see qualitative research – which often relies on methods such as semi-structured interviews or focus groups – fitting in?

PA: Open science has focused a lot on replication. This is not necessarily the goal of qualitative research. But I think there’s room in the discussion around open science to talk about what we can do to share good practice in terms of research policy, even if we don’t expect to find the same set of results every time we do something in qualitative research. We can be more transparent about where we came from: how we organized, coded and analyzed the data.

Another consideration is how participants feel about open science and how comfortable they are with the availability of their data. Many have felt wronged by past research and do not always trust researchers. They might be less inclined to participate in studies that make their data available.

S: How do you plan to address participants’ concerns about data sharing?

PA: My research focuses on autistic masking and experiences of interpersonal victimization and stigma. I am transparent about our approach, telling participants what kind of data will be available and that any identifying data will be removed.

Given the nature of our specific project and the things we’re looking at, I wouldn’t feel comfortable with anyone just being able to access the data. We also spoke with the people who handle data at the UK data sharing service about the different levels of access you can have to a dataset. We set up ours so that if anyone wants to request the data, they should contact us.

S: What are the next steps to advance open science in autism research?

DP: At present, progress is somewhat on hold as Hannah Hobson and Cathy Manning, another project leader and autism researcher, are on leave. But one of the hopes is that the Open Autism Research website will become a go-to space for information and resources. I am also thinking of the adoption of recorded reports in autism journals.

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