Opening up energy research: a practical guide

13 Jan 2021

By Gesche Huebner, Michael Fell, and Nicole Watson.


Energy research has a vital role to play in combating climate change, as well as keeping the lights on in our daily lives. But how sure can we be that findings in this field can be trusted?

Without knowing enough detail about a study, it can be hard to tell whether conclusions are justified and to evaluate evidence. For this reason, transparency is increasingly being valued by scientists as a cornerstone of good research practice.

Transparency also helps combat poor research practices, such as weak study design, inadequate reporting, and inappropriate manipulation of data or findings. Although these practices are not necessarily malicious or intentional, they can still distort research findings. This creates problems if policy and future research are being built on effects that are either not real or do not apply in the context in which they are deployed.

Despite its crucial importance, energy research remains behind other disciplines when it comes to adopting research practices for improving transparency. In a new paper, UCL researchers Gesche Huebner, Michael Fell, and Nicole Watson explore why this might be, and present a simple set of tools and practices they recommend all energy researchers should at least consider applying.

A toolkit for transparency, reproducibility, and quality

The tools were chosen based on three criteria: they are applicable to a wide and multidisciplinary variety of approaches; have a low barrier to entry; and can be employed flexibly, rather than constraining researchers.

The first tool, preregistration of analysis plans, involves specifying how data will be treated and analysed before collecting the data. This has several benefits, including adding credibility to results by making bad research practices easier to spot, and helping to identify potential issues with the study early on, saving time at later stages.

Secondly, when writing up scientific research, it can be difficult to decide which details need to be included. Following specific reporting guidelines helps ensure that no important information is left out, making it easier for future researchers to evaluate or even replicate the study.

The third tool involves publishing preprints, i.e. working copies of papers prior to peer-review. This allows potentially useful findings to be acted on more quickly and makes the research more widely accessible. Preprints should, however, be clearly labelled as such, and a ‘buyer beware’ approach taken on behalf of readers.

Finally sharing data and code can help identify errors, increase productivity and collaborations, and improve the visibility and impact of research.

Practical application

The paper offers practical guidance on applying these tools, as well as a checklist that can be added to publications to show how these practices have been used. Widespread adoption of these tools could help bring greater confidence to research findings, as well as delivering benefits for individual researchers.

Read the full paper here.

About the authors:

Nicole Watson is a PhD Student at the UCL Energy Institute. Michael Fell is a Senior Research Fellow at the UCL Energy Institute. Gesche Huebner is a Senior Research Associate at the UCL Energy Institute & Lecturer at the UCL Institute for Environmental Design and Engineering.