Mar 6, 2015

On "Opening" Undergraduate Learning: A Student's Journey Through Open Science


In following the recent cascade of online commentary and published literature surrounding the open science debate, I've noticed various attempts to situate the undergraduate role within this movement. One position, held by many, is best communicated in the following passages:

"Replications of new research should be performed by students as part of their coursework in experimental methods." (Frank & Saxe, 2004)

"...if students are encouraged to conduct replications as part of an effort to document and archive replications, collected classroom projects could contribute significantly to the field." (Grahe et al., 2012)

"...many academics already have set research agendas and may be unable to engage in the much-needed replication studies. In contrast, undergraduate students lack these prior commitments, creating the perfect opportunity for them to contribute to the scientific field while completing classroom requirements...When undergraduates get involved with research, everyone benefits..." (Grahe, Guillaume, & Rudmann, 2013)

"I am very excited about the recent opportunities that allow students to contribute to "big science" by acting as crowd-sourcing experimenters." ("Opportunities for Collaborative Research"; Grahe, 2013)

Clearly, open science proponents believe in the significance and necessity of undergraduate contributions to the movement. Even when reading between the lines, I take no offense to the implications made above; undergraduates do remain a valuable, blunt-force utility appropriate for open science's "dirty work", particularly when noting our lack of constraints (e.g. preexisting research agendas, reliance on funding, publication quotas, anxiety about tenure) relative to academics. And, though not included above, all of the aforementioned pieces make comparably frequent mentions of the reciprocal benefits to undergraduates when they participate in open science, suggesting that undergraduate involvement--even at the ground-level of replication and crowd-sourcing projects--really is advantageous to all.

Even so, discussions of these benefits are painfully vague and regularly short-ended; they are also, ironically, made by academics rather than undergraduates themselves. Acknowledging these shortcomings, below I briefly recount my own immersion in open science initiatives to firm up the discussion of undergraduate participation within the movement. I seek to frame these numerous open science avenues, both those directed at undergraduates and those open to all, as a critical educational tool, one fit for helping students meet the five "Learning Goals" outlined in the APA Guidelines for the Undergraduate Psychology Major (American Psychological Association, 2013). And while ultimately I vouch for an empirical pretest-posttest evaluation of my opinion--namely, that undergraduate participation in open science-based research projects prepares students to meet these learning goals above and beyond class-bracketed research--my own experiences will have to suffice for now.

Goal 1: Knowledge Base in Psychology

In their first learning goal, the APA calls for students to grasp the historical, theoretical and conceptual underpinnings of psychology and its comprising subfields. They understandably assume that this knowledge will largely come from course-taking, and I certainly don't dispute this assumption, especially when considering the distinct objectives for foundation level students (those who have completed no more than four course in the major) who may have no other extracurriculars (for example, Psi Chi or Psychology Club) from which to refine their knowledge base.

Yet it's important to remember that undergraduate coursework is generally constrained in its breadth and accessibility. More specifically, both the number of classes and the types of classes at an undergraduate's disposal can be gravely limited. I recall not having space in my schedule to take a well-regarded cognitive psychology class, and consequently, feeling poorly versed in the domain's theoretical framework and popular studies. Or, relatedly, hearing murmurings of human factors psychology and its inspiring applied nature, yet not having access to an elective dedicated to introducing that field.

In response to these limitations, I contend that The Center of Open Science's (COS) Archival Project is a remarkable educational opportunity for circumventing these limitations. This project recruits qualified undergraduates to "objectively assess the research and replication practices" of studies published in three of psychology's high-impact academic journals. Alongside its primary goal of deciphering the actual rate of replication within the discipline, The Archival Project represents a unique and meaningful chance for students to critically engage with literature spanning the array of psychological subfields.

I became involved with The Archival Project as a member of my institution's Psi Chi chapter, which was asked to pilot initial versions of the project's standardized article coding scheme. I concede without bitterness that this free, crowd-sourcing initiative forced me to thoroughly digest more psychological literature than the courses I was paying thousands of dollars to attend; doing so while contributing to groundbreaking science was an added bonus and motivator. Additionally, because the journals in question are broad in scope, I dabbled in biopsychology and neuropsychology readings that I may never have encountered otherwise. With confidence I can thus assert that my discipline-specific knowledge base was significantly bolstered by a project that is virtually open to all.

Goal 2: Scientific Inquiry and Critical Thinking

The second learning outcome specified by the APA involves the "the development of scientific reasoning and problem solving, including effective research methods." I foresee the assumption here being that class-mandated, independent projects are a suitable manner of meeting this learning goal, particularly when noting the substantial number of psychology majors required to participate in undergraduate research (Grahe et al., 2012). Again, I don't disagree with this kind of thinking, yet coupling this requirement with open science platforms makes only more sense.

Arguably, the typical undergraduate research experience, especially as a tool for instruction, contains several notable shortcomings. Even in its planning stage, student-driven research is limited by the depth of student's conceptual knowledge and the resources at her or his disposal. Furthermore, both planning and execution can be inhibited by the length of a quarter or semester, where simply getting IRB approval eats away at weeks of valuable data collection time. And thirdly, often a more definite endpoint exists--a final grade--and beyond that, many students' data seemingly don't matter much.

These potential drawbacks are precisely why I remain grateful for my own participation in a collective research paradigm, an experience so critical to my psychology-specific growth that I may have not pursued the discipline otherwise. Dr. Jon Grahe's Collective Undergraduate Research Project (a precursor to the current Collaborative Replications and Education Project) connected me with the project proposal of Dr. Fabian Ramseyer, a Swiss researcher seeking additional samples to test his objective gauge for dyadic movement coordination. (A brief overview of our work is viewable here.) I smile thinking back to the beginning days of our project, when--as a sophomore attempting to better understand Dr. Ramseyer's protocol and its underlying theory--I kept pronouncing "rapport" with a hard, annunciated "t" (thus "report"). And in a way, that's exactly the point. I knew absolutely nothing about the rapport construct and its behavioral correlates before this investigation, and class material never once spotlighted the topic. Just as I came to understand the ins and outs of dyadic rapport development via this open science opportunity, calls for undergraduate replication expose students to research concepts that are otherwise inconceivable, thereby broadening students' psychological knowledge. My collaboration with Dr. Ramseyer also allowed access to methodological tools (e.g. Motion Energy Analysis, the "objective gauge" mentioned above) literally unavailable elsewhere. When acknowledging the limited resources of a small, liberal arts university like my own, such accessibility can be especially empowering.

Also noteworthy is how the potential for "authentic research" (Grahe, "Opportunities for Collaborative Research" can inspire learning far beyond that of research conducted for coursework alone. Knowing that one's data matters--whether it will be collapsed into a larger, crowd-sourced dataset, used to validate previous findings, or employed to evaluate the reliability of a novel methodology--encourages meticulousness. And to be meticulous requires the cultivation of problem-solving and critical-thinking skills central to the APA's second learning goal. A humorous example of this is my own consideration of how swivel chairs (versus stationary desk chairs) might confound the type and frequency of movement synchronization between dyad members. When bringing my question to Dr. Ramseyer's attention, he exclaimed: "Your questions are proof that you have reached a good understanding of what is going on with MEA and video-analysis – congratulations!"

Goal 3: Ethical and Social Responsibility in a Diverse World

The APA's third undergraduate learning goal emphasizes student's awareness of their social and ethical responsibilities. As it applies to students completing their baccalaureate degree, this objective further encourages students to manifest these responsibilities in ways that "optimize" or "strengthen" their professional contributions. I commend the APA's inclusion of this criterion, specifically when noting the recent string of ethical breaches in psychology and beyond. The transparency, impartiality, and general foundation of open science makes it a special, yet underutilized option to hone undergraduates' understanding of scientific ethics.

That said, class-bracketed research might then be counterproductive. While students conduct research, they are concurrently refining their professional values and understanding of ethical science; doing so in a format that limits data-sharing and possible dissemination modes seems to then be sending the wrong message. Could it even be teaching bad science? Without doubt, it is minimizing students' potential contributions to the field.

I can speak from experience when saying that students quickly latch onto the drama of running their painstakingly-collected data through SPSS, crossing their fingers, and praying for results that support their hypotheses. Far too many, in consequence, are greeted with a lack of significance or something discouraging...and that momentary passion is indefinitely quelled. My head hung pretty low the countless times Dr. Ramseyer and I's data yielded nothing worthy of much excitement. With persistent encouragement from my advisor, however, I've shared our robust, vastly underexplored data on the Open Science Framework and via a data paper published in The Journal for Open Psychology Data.

Without hyperbole, I believe that the process of contributing to these open science platforms has forever shaped my values as a psychologist and my ethical commitment as a researcher. Firstly, I've come to frame my efforts in publicizing these data as, indeed, maximizing my contribution (given my resources and my data) to the field, a contribution that would be nearly impossible without the above-mentioned open science opportunities. Secondly, in sharing these data, I've had to also disseminate contextual and procedural information necessary for replication, potential collaboration, or data-checking. I now understand scientific transparency (alluded to in section 8.14 of the APA's Ethics Code) and encouraged replication to be paramount to good science. And most generally, along the way, I've accumulated knowledge about the current replication crisis, data falsification scandals, and other trends that verify the need for an open science network. As an example, choosing to post these data comes from my awareness of (and push back against) the "file drawer problem" (Rosenthal, 1979) plaguing modern science. I can almost guarantee that these current happenings in psychological science--and their interconnection with social and ethical responsibilities--are no more than alluded to in undergraduate psychology classes. This is why teaching open science is so crucial to plugging this educational hole and satisfying the APA's third undergraduate learning objective.

Goal 4: Communication

With their fourth learning goal, the APA insists that psychology majors should be able to effectively communicate through writing, presentations, and interpersonal discussion. My undergraduate experience dedicated a significant amount of time to sharpening my written communication and oral presentation skills, most often through in-class exercises or feedback on assignments. Yet, in learning other types of information exchange, students were left to fend for themselves. The point I hope to make below is that open science requires contributors to communicate via nontraditional mediums that are significant but seldom covered in class. Because these mediums ensure that students can maximize their scientific potential (through collaboration, data-sharing, and the like), they should be embraced and taught across all levels of higher education.

Primarily, I argue that open science is crucial to cushioning the otherwise intimidating prospect of undergraduate-initiated dialogue with graduate students or faculty. An indisputable point is that most undergraduates don't even know how to initiate these conversations, let alone how to sustain them without the fear of asking stupid questions or appearing ignorant. The neat thing about many open science opportunities is that they give students a figurative seat at the academic table, where the student-professor relationship can evolve into one that feels more collegial.

In my own journey, I distinctly recall finding my voice in the midst of my partnership with Dr. Ramseyer. Long-distance collaborations, particularly when using someone else's detailed protocol and associated software package, requires a heap of emails, all of which needed to be professional, clear, and concise. This partnership forced me to become a proficient communicator over email (something that many students could improve on), and additionally, boosted my confidence when talking with academic superiors. Relatedly, Dr. Grahe provided onsite supervision of this project, and our weekly meetings provided ample time to feel better about expressing my own opinion to--and even debating with--faculty. A fitting test for these developing skills occurred during a study abroad experience, when I took a side trip and visited Dr. Ramseyer in Bern. Amazingly, it felt as if we were able to pick up right where we left off over email, discussing potential updates for movement coordination software and his newfound interest in vocal pitch synchronization. Certainly I was nervous for that meeting in Switzerland, and I still get anxious before chats with faculty, however I attribute these communication improvements to my participation in open science projects.

And briefly, while the writing necessary to develop a project page with the Open Science Framework or draft a data paper with The Journal of Open Psychology Data remains unfamiliar to most undergraduates, it also represents a terrific opportunity for student writing to move beyond the generic "APA style manuscript" guidelines often imposed on it. Sure, I found these modes challenging to adapt to at first, yet I was reminded that proficient communication requires exactly that: adaptation to its setting. As we watch the tides of science change, it is important to expose students to mediums that are gaining traction and popularity within the discipline. Only then will students overwhelming meet the criteria included in this fourth goal.

Goal 5: Professional Development

In culmination, the APA's fifth learning objective asks programs to best equip their students with skills increasing their competitiveness for post-college employment or graduate school. Specifications of these abilities include the maturation of "self-efficacy and self-regulation," "project-management skills," enhancing one's "teamwork capacity," and the application of "psychology content and skills to career goals." While I understand the value in these skills for postbaccalaureate success, I also must note that undergraduate coursework (including research) usually serves as the end-goal through which these skills are taught. Few instructors devote intentional lesson plans to improving students' ability to work in a team or develop self-efficacy; instead, these abilities are learned along the way.

Consequently, the content of this fifth goal seems almost circular, especially to those aiming for graduate school or psychology-related employment. Consider the previous four objectives and my arguments for how open science opportunities might benefit learning above and beyond course-bracketed research projects. As students learn how to learn by building a psychology-specific knowledge base, boost their critical thinking skills through intensive scientific inquiry, augment their learning with the awareness of social and science-specific ethics, and polish their communication skills, they are developing abilities paramount to their professional development. And if their participation in open science only betters their development of such skills, then it seems almost imperative that students be exposed to these projects in a setting that, above all else, exists to ready students for their future careers.

I'd like to conclude by acknowledging the disagreements swirling around open science implementation. Debate is inherent to changing the status quo, and ultimately, I don't want to blame either side for their passions or viewpoints. Nonetheless, there's an underlying point here that seems far less disputable. Improving the quality of undergraduate education should be a priority to all, particularly to those same academics engaged in this debate. Can't we all agree on the educational capacity of a movement (call it "open science" if you wish) that stimulates undergraduate learning, in ways previously overlooked or inconceivable? The movement is ready. Now it's simply a matter of embracing it.

Works Cited

American Psychological Association. (2013). APA Guidelines for the Undergraduate Psychology Major. Retrieved from

Frank, M. C., & Saxe, R. (2012). Teaching replication. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 7(6), 600-604. doi:10.1177/1745691612460686

Grahe. J. E., Gullaume-Hanes, E., & Rudmann, J. (2013). Students collaborate to advance science: The International Situations Project. Council for Undergraduate Research Quarterly, 34(2), 4-9.

Grahe, J. E., Reifman, A., Hermann, A. D., Walker, M., Oleson, K. C., Nario-Redmond, M., & Wiebe, R. P. (2012). Harnessing the undiscovered resource of student research projects. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 7(6), 605-607. doi:10.1177/1745691612459057

Rosenthal, R. (1979). The file drawer problem and tolerance for null results. Psychological Bulletin, 86(3), 638-641.