When open research won’t be nudged by a badge: The case for sticks and carrots

Award BadgesBy Christie Hurrell, Paul Pival, and Kathryn Ruddock ,

University of Calgary Library

Can small incentives act as effective “nudges” to encourage researchers to adopt open behaviours in the scholarly communications process? A recent article by Maynard and Munafo in Behavioural Public Policy suggests a number of such small incentives at a variety of stages in the research process to gently push researchers towards increased transparency. However, a recent study we conducted suggests that the context around such incentives may be important, and additional research shows that enforcement may be an even stronger driving factor. In the context of encouraging openness, sticks may be more effective than carrots.

One specific incentive that is highlighted in the Behavioural Public Policyarticle, as well as in a previous article by Munafo et al,,  is the use of open badges to encourage researchers to make data and other materials accompanying a scientific article openly accessible. A study by Kidwell et al., found badges to be a very effective incentive among authors submitting open data to a peer-reviewed journal: during the study period, the percentage of authors reporting open data increased from 3% to 23%, with no corresponding increases seen in comparison journals.

As library workers who are interested in encouraging openness in scholarly communication, we found these results intriguing, and wondered whether they could be replicated in a different context. We surveyed federally-funded researchers at our own institution and then performed user testing to see if a simple badge signifying openness was a sufficient enough incentive to entice them to deposit a research article into an openly-accessible repository.

Our results suggest that badges may not always be an effective incentive to increase transparency in research, and that the context and larger incentive structures that surround these small encouragements is likely important, and possibly paramount. Our results show that only about a third of all researchers surveyed perceived a badge signifying openness as valuable, and user testing found that uploading a research article into an open repository was time consuming and challenging for researchers. In this context, a badge was not an effective enough incentive to take the extra step to signal compliance with an Open Access policy.

These results may relate to the larger incentive structure around openness in the Canadian context.  Although Canada’s main federal funding agencies have had a policy on Open Access since 2015, there is no evidence that the policy is being enforced, for example by withholding or suspending grant funding. A recent large-scale study by Larivièire and Sugimoto of research funded by agencies with Open Access mandates shows that effective infrastructure and enforcement are strong drivers of compliance with open principles. As their study demonstrates, levels of compliance in Canada are among the lowest of the countries studied, and the authors suggest that this is linked to the lack of structured policies, infrastructure, and enforcement that effectively encourage compliance.

The study by Kidwell et al. examined the effectiveness of a small incentive within the context of a process that academic researchers are already highly incentivised to do: have papers accepted to academic journals. Within this very motivating context, the small nudge of a badge was effective. In contrast, our study attempted to motivate researchers to make their research openly-accessible in a context where they were not motivated to comply.

In his article “Nudges that fail” Sunstein identifies two particular causes of failure that seem relevant to our findings. Firstly, the existence of policies perceived by the chooser to be coercive may produce reactance. In our study the use of a badge takes place within the context of a government policy on Open Access that puts funding grants under threat. Even though this policy is unenforced it may affect the response to other policies addressing the same problem. Secondly, Sunstein notes that nudges directed primarily at addressing third-party effects may prove insufficient to change behaviour. As we noted above the personal incentive for publication amongst academic researchers can be absent for federally-funded researchers, thus the third-party interest is dominant when the nudge is used in this slightly different circumstance. It would seem that context matters more than a simple reward.