Open Science and the trust of the public in science

Two studies test if transparency in research creates public trust

Photo of the word "Trust" written in the sand

For the acceptance of scientific findings it is essential that society trusts in science. There’s no innovation without trust. Surveys such as Wissenschaftsbarometer regularly measure how much the genreal public trusts in science.

What has been much less studied is whether open scholarly working practices – so-called Open Science practices such as sharing the materials, data or code of a study – have positive effects on the public’s trust in science.

Rosman et al. want to fill this gap in the knowledge with their paper. They first studied by means of an online survey what the public attitude towards Open Science practices is and what their expectations for these practices are. 509 persons responded who formed in age and gender a respresentative section of the general population in Germany. The cross-sectional correlation design contained eight questions to be answered in a single sitting.

The result of the first study is:

The public thinks it is important that scientists disclose their findings, methods and data, and it has more trust in scientific findings if they do. 87% of respondents thought it important that the public has free access to research findings. 64% thought it important that the underlying materials and data of a study are made available. 74% of respondents also confirmed that they have more trust in research findings when underlying data are published.

The experimental study

A second study followed, since online surveys have certain methodical weaknesses because they rely on self-reporting and because possible biases due to socially desirable answers cannot be ruled out. The intention was to see if the findings could be confirmed if the evaluation controls more strongly for such bias.

In addition an experimental section was designed. This aimed to see if the application or non-application of Open Science practices (in this case public access to research findings and making research data available) affects trust in the findings of studies. It also looked at the effects of statements about the application of such Open Science practices on trust in science.

A further research question of the study was how much public or private funding of research affects the trust in scientific studies. For this study, 588 participants were recruited who did not take part in the first study. They had to read four different fictional study abstracts and then answer questions about them. These checked if the texts had been understood and also measured trust.

The result of the second study is:

It can be deduced that Open Science practices can be trust-enhancing if it is sufficiently explained what is meant in the concrete situation. The authors’ expectations for the outcome were only partially met in this case, which may be due to the experiment’s design. 

It can be summarised that:

  • The public is convinced that Open Science practices in the sense of openness and transparency are important because they strengthen trust in research findings;
  • Open Science practices can be trust-enhancing when they are explained to the public.

If trust in study results is the ultimate goal, then the necessary knowledge about scientific work must be created in the public, which makes understanding and evaluation possible in the first place. This is where science communication should start.

Rosman et al.: Open science and public trust in science: Results from two studies (not freely accessible)

to Open Science Magazine