Open Science for water research

Published on 19/01/2023

For the launch of the new scientific journal Nature Water, researchers Emma and Stan Schymanski contributed an article about the future of water research. This opinion paper focuses on the importance of open science in a field where, due to its global societal relevance, knowledge and research results should be freely accessible by a wide range of stakeholders. The publication also highlights the interdisciplinary expertise brought to Luxembourg by the two FNR ATTRACT fellows on such a topical subject.

A precious resource we must share and preserve

Water is the basis of life on Earth. Worldwide, societies rely on its quantity and quality for drinking, growing food and maintaining an enjoyable environment. Water is also a common good whose abundance depends on a global water cycle, making water availability in one place strongly impacted by the land use in another. As the stress on water sources intensifies, it becomes increasingly clear that we have to rethink our relationship with water and develop innovative approaches to better understand and manage this precious resource.

In that context, Nature is launching a new journal dedicated to research connected to this evolving relationship between society and water. The first issue of Nature Water, published on 19 January, includes a contribution by scientists Emma Schymanski, head of the Environmental Cheminformatics group at the Luxembourg Centre for Systems Biomedicine (LCSB) of the University of Luxembourg, and Stan Schymanski, lead of the Water and Vegetation in a Changing Environment (WAVE) project within the Environmental Research and Innovation (ERIN) Department of LIST: a call for Open Science in water research to help preserve this resource in a rapidly changing environment.

Several challenges from chemical pollution to climate change

In the article, the two authors mention the many issues that have emerged over the past decades, from global pollution of water to increasing droughts and floods. Various combinations of natural phenomena and complex contamination events affect water systems, reduce water availability and lead to a global re-distribution of the resource. Beside catastrophic events, water supplies are also impacted by slow and persistent trends such as over-exploitation of groundwater. The list goes on. “There are countless examples of the impact of our society on water bodies,” details Associate Prof. Emma Schymanski. “One of the most recent ones being the environmental disaster and accompanying mass fish deaths in the river Oder last summer in Poland and Germany.”

Open science to tackle these issues

Research on water systems can help us face these considerable challenges but needs to consider the global societal relevance of its subject. “Since water is a common good, it should be natural that the outcome of water-related research is accessible to everyone,” explains Dr Stan Schymanski. “It needs to become freely available and re-usable for everybody, without the need for paid licenses to view publications or use data.”

The two researchers insist on the importance of implementing Open Science in its broadest definition. It has to go beyond open access to research articles: it must also include open data and open-source computer code. Additionally, open data should be aligned with the FAIR Principles, which describe how to make data findable, accessible, interoperable and reusable. Open reproducible research can only be achieved through the combination of all these aspects.

Their Nature Water article details how this is vital for the development of Early Warning Systems for floods for example, as reliable forecasting relies heavily on real-time sharing of meteorological data. It is also crucial when studying processes on long time scales such as groundwater recharge, that can take centuries in arid systems. Understanding these natural mechanisms is only possible through free access to long time series of hydrological data across the globe.

After reviewing the tools already available to perform open water research – such as open repositories, templates to facilitate reproducibility assessments, practical guidelines for sharing code and choosing appropriate licenses – the two authors call for substantial additional efforts toward fully open science.

Interdisciplinary expertise in Luxembourg

This call stems from the extensive expertise of both scientists in water research and Open Science. Emma Schymanski’s work is dedicated to the identification of chemical pollutants in the environment and their effect on human health. Several of the research projects conducted by her team at the LCSB focus on water pollution at the local (LuxTIME) or European level (ZeroPM) and on open data exchange (NORMAN Network). At LIST, Stan Schymanski studies the interactions between vegetation, soil and the atmosphere to better predict the impact of land use and environmental change on water resources (WAVE). He also follows an Open Science approach, developing software solutions to make his team’s research available and reproducible.

“We hope that authors and editors alike will join us in this quest for FAIR Open Science in water research,” conclude the two researchers. “Opening science will ensure the success of large collaborative efforts to preserve water resources and the dissemination of knowledge to the communities most affected by changes in water quality and accessibility. Together, many seemingly small steps have the potential to create a world of difference.”

To learn more about this topic, join the webinar "Focus on social science and open science" organised by Nature Water on Thursday 2 February at 1:00pm

Reference: Emma L. Schymanski and Stanislaus J. Schymanski, Water science must be open science, Nature Water, 19 January 2023. DOI 10.1038/s44221-022-00014-z

Photo credit: The image was generated with OpenAI (DALL.E 2)


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