Rachel Harding on demolishing barriers to medical breakthrough

Posted on Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Rachel Harding is a postdoctoral fellow at the Structural Genomics Consortium.

By Shawn Hayward

Medical research is time-consuming and expensive. There is a tendency to guard results and the credit that comes with it. But more and more researchers are looking at the idea of scientific protectionism with a fresh perspective, reappraising the worth of siloing discovery, and recognizing the harm it can cause.

Rachel Harding is a postdoctoral fellow at the Structural Genomics Consortium (SGC) and an Oxford University alumna. Her area of focus is Huntington’s disease, a condition that leads to brain cell death, disability and dementia.

Rather than keep her data private, Harding is releasing it online in real time. She does this through her website, Lab Scribbles. While this is raw data, not the kind found in published academic journal articles, Harding hopes it proves useful to fellow Huntington’s disease researchers and patients suffering from the disease. The ultimate goal is to aid the development of a breakthrough treatment for this terrible disease.

Harding recently gave a seminar about Lab Scribbles at the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital, where open science has been adopted at the institutional level. She spoke with the McGill Reporter about her work.

Why did you decide to make all your data public?

Open research has always interested me and I believe all academic output should be open access. I was very fortunate in my postdoctoral position at the SGC that I could explore some more innovative methods of scholarly communication with the organization’s full support. Aled Edwards (our CEO) asked if the notebook was something I would be interested in doing and I jumped at the chance.

Working on the biochemistry of Huntington’s disease (HD) is very challenging as the huntingtin protein is very big so traditional structural biology approaches are very tough. Structural biology projects can be quite binary in their outcome in traditional publication, you solve the structure or you don’t. However, a huge amount of work will go into a project to get you to that stage, a lot of which could be very useful for other researchers in the field, so making that available for posterity in a notebook makes sense, to me at least.

What sort of reaction have you gotten so far?

The reaction from most scientists about my open notebook has been very positive which surprised me given the fear of “scooping” most academics work under. Interestingly, my very anecdotal (and non-scientifically analyzed) experience does tend to suggest a generational divide as to whether academics support more radical open science strategies with more early career researchers enthusiastically supporting such policies. The general public, who I have spoken to at library events and in communications through my blog and Twitter, have been overwhelmingly supportive. I feel very privileged to hear from so many people with messages of support, especially HD patients and families.

Are you worried someone may take your work and copy it for their own personal gain without giving you credit? Why or why not?

This is a real possibility and there probably wouldn’t be too much I could do about it. However, all of my work is published under Creative Commons Attribution license (commonly called CC-by) which means that anyone re-using, modifying or building on the methods and data, all of which I highly support and encourage, should really cite the specific data deposits. I would be thrilled if someone used my work for or towards their own research findings so it would be great if they let me know that had happened.

Overall, I think the benefits of working in the open vastly outweigh any risk of being scooped. The labscribbles project has opened so many doors for me, both in terms of scholarly communication as well as development of my own scientific skill-set. We also have a large collaborative network of scientists working with us on different aspects of the project, in part I believe, because of the innovative nature of this project. I think all of these advantages mean that the project is progressing far more quickly than if I were a postdoc working in the traditional “closed” sense. Reaching our scientific goals and milestones is the top priority and the open notebook approach is really helping us with that.

The Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital has adopted an open science policy. What do you think of expanding open science to the institutional level?

Taking open science policies to a higher level is an amazing step forward for the open movement. Whether that is individual labs, funding agencies, departments or institutions, I wholeheartedly support anyone who takes that step. I think it will be important to reflect on the impact of open policies on those taking these steps, so that in the future, we will have data to support why this is a great idea and more will feel encouraged to adopt similar policies.

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