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By: Dr James Steele, Principal Investigator and Associate Professor of Sport and Exercise Science

From its inception, one of the core aims of the ukactive Research Institute was to bridge the evidence gap between traditional laboratory-based ‘exercise is medicine’ research and real world interventions. In order to bridge the gap, a strategic objective of the Research Institute is to use its unique position at the heart of the health and physical activity sector to disseminate data and key findings to practitioners, operators, policymakers, local government and health agencies to ensure lessons translate to actions. Today, we announce a new step towards achieving that strategic objective, one which will enable us to better support the sector… a step towards open science.

Open science is quite simply the growing movement towards transparency and accessibility in research. Its core principles and practices revolve around, where possible, making science open at all levels, including protocols, data, analysis and dissemination. Considering the founding vision of the ukactive Research Institute, the decision has been taken to move towards operating within the framework of open science to better support our sector.

As a first step in this process, and in time for a major international event for our sector – the seventh International Society for Physical Activity and Health Congress being held this week at the Queen Elizabeth II Centre in London – I am pleased to announce that, going forwards, the ukactive Research Institute will endeavour to make all academic research it conducts open access upon completion as ‘pre-print articles’. This will be enabled through a partnership with the recently formed open access repository SportRχiv (pronounced ‘sport archive’). At present, the traditional route to academic publication and dissemination of findings involves submission of papers to journals where the work is peer reviewed prior to publication. Of course, this adds an element of quality control to the process, which is a valuable part of science as a method. This is not something we are forgoing and we will be submitting our work for peer review concomitantly on completion alongside our pre-print article. However, the traditional academic publishing route can add lengthy delays to dissemination, and often the findings of academic work are not openly accessible to those who might benefit most from those findings. With our pre-print articles we intend to disseminate findings early (with the caveat that they have not been fully peer reviewed – though all articles are independently vetted by SportRχiv as being of an academic standard). The intention is to enable the wider academic community, in addition to practitioners, policy makers and other stakeholders, to see the results of our work without barriers so that they might benefit from them. For academics, it enables feedback, debate and discussion to inform future work. For practitioners, policy makers and other stakeholders, we will include with all pre-prints a summary highlighting the approach taken and main findings, alongside conclusions and limitations – enabling the work to inform practice. This is an important step towards ensuring our work benefits the sector, and with time we will be looking to embed other open science practices within our policy, including pre-registration of protocols, analysis and data.

With respect to open data, some time ago ukactive announced that one of its key projects was to begin work alongside ReferAll and the National Centre for Sport and Exercise Medicine Sheffield, on a database to capture and collate information regarding exercise referral schemes within the UK. In 2014, the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence conducted a review of exercise referral schemes and noted that further research was needed to understand the impact that they were having – recent consultation on this area revealed largely the same conclusion. Now, more than ever, it is important to grow the evidence around this topic. With the NHS turning 70, and under more pressure than ever – alongside a growing social care crisis – it has been argued that exercise and physical activity interventions may be key in the prevention agenda for a sustainable health system. What we believe is essential though is understanding what works best. We understand better than ever the efficacy of exercise and physical activity interventions under idealised conditions. Yet, we still don’t know what works best with respect to wider public health interventions in this regard – we don’t really understand what is effective.

Using this database we are beginning to glean initial findings that might help inform where best practice exists and what may not be working so well with respect to exercise referral. We hope to finalise our work and share this – in line with our new publishing policy – as pre-prints over the coming months. Yet, we have bigger plans still to help our sector understand the value it can offer here. Our next step on this front is to work to establish the database as an open resource to enable the wider academic community to access open data for further research, and for policy makers and practitioners to see its findings and put them into practice. We want to grow the database from where it currently is and to see more schemes signing up to include their data. As the learnings of the database are incorporated into practice and policies, and as data is fed back into the database, this will facilitate continued evaluation. We hope to see the introduction of novel schemes and approaches such as Golf on Referral and their evaluation in comparison to established standards. In addition, we will be partnering with the Social Prescribing Network to facilitate the inclusion of other referral pathways not limited to only physical activity and exercise, so that our sector can learn from the effectiveness of other schemes.

The success of the above is contingent on a number of things – most importantly it requires buy in from our sector. Back in 2014 the ukactive Research Institute alongside Public Health England and the National Centre for Sport and Exercise Medicine Sheffield reported the findings of Promising Practice, wherein it was found the sector on the whole was poor at evaluating and evidencing their impact. A second report in 2016, Moving at Scale, found improvement in the sector and provided guidance for those delivering interventions on their evaluation. Success for this database will mean that we can help to further improve the quality of the work we all engage in and better evidence the value we can provide.

So, I want to end with a call – a call for open data and sharing, in keeping with the movement for open science. We need those in our sector delivering exercise referral schemes to work with us to maximise the potential of this database. We need academics, policy makers, practitioners and other stakeholders who are interested in learning more about exercise referral schemes to help us build that case to support the database. Please work with us to build the evidence base and learn more about what works best.

Looking forward across this coming week, I’m very proud to be leading the ukactive Research Institute at ISPAH 2018. We are presenting on a range of projects that we have been involved with, all of which will be disseminated widely through our pre-print policy once they are complete, and this week there will be a number of blogs from the team describing some of the work. Stay tuned, and if you happen to be at ISPAH please do come say hello!

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