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A change in research culture is needed to make sharing data a default rather than an exception

“A change in research culture is needed to make sharing data a default rather than an exception”
Name: Prof. Tuuli Toivonen
Position: Associate professor and leader of the Digital Geography Lab
Institution: University of Helsinki, Department of Geosciences and Geography, Digital Geography Lab
Country: Finland
More info: Home PageTwitter

ORCID ID: http://orcid.org/0000-0002-6625-4922

An interview with Prof. Tuuli Toivonen on 5 June 2017

Why are you so keen to share data? What experiences made you realise its importance?

As a starting researcher some 15 years ago, I was depending on the availability of data products created by some public authorities. Negotiations on the data took a lot of my time, and sometimes the price tag was simply too high to get access to the right data sets. It was frustrating to know that valuable data had been collected but there was no access to that. The frustration was particularly intense if the data was collected by publicly-funded institutions that did not have the resources to really analyse the data. Then, we argued, that publicly-produced data should be mobilised for research. Or even better, we argued, it should be available for everyone without restrictions, to reduce the administrative workload and to reduce the barriers for collaboration and innovation between scientists, companies and active citizens. Later, partially because of the open data movement, and partially because of European-scale process (such as the INSPIRE directive), public authorities in Finland started to share their data openly, allowing new research to emerge and reducing the time in administrative processes.

Since those times I have strongly felt that if I produce data in a publicly-funded research project, it is my positive duty to share it with others, to advance further use of our research results and to reduce duplication of effort in society. Of course it is also pleasing to see your own data starting to feed into town planning or take new shapes in the hands of other researchers.

“Since those times I have strongly felt that if I produce data in a publicly-funded research project, it is my positive duty to share it with others, to advance further use of our research results and to reduce duplication of effort in society.”

How are you involved with Open Data?

Our attempt is to be openly sharing the data sets produced in our research, when that is possible. In addition to actual data created during the research process and published alongside research articles (such as https://avaa.tdata.fi/web/cbig/gpan), we are also applying our own openly available tools to create repetitive data products for us and others to use (like http://blogs.helsinki.fi/accessibility/data/).

What frustrates you most about the current systems? If you could change one thing, what would it be?

“I hope that over time openness becomes a standard in the scientific process and the respect for open scientific results will be increasingly tied to their transparency.”

One of the most urgent things, even prior to openness of scientific data, is the openness of publications. For example Finland has faced real difficulties with some big publishers in trying to negotiate for increased openness with a fair price. Hundreds of researchers are currently boycotting Elsevier to support the negotiations. When it comes to specifically open data, the current academic funding and merit system encourages the seeking of quick personal profits instead of working with long-term scientific goals in mind. Sharing of data requires time because it needs to be well-documented. Also, data is a resource in academic competition. The current system that aims at quick profits does not always encourage using time to document data or share it openly with those who could benefit from it in scientific competition. There is, however, a clear change towards more openness in many fields, because in the long term openness of data is vital also for evaluating the scientific results. I hope that over time openness becomes a standard in the scientific process and the respect for open scientific results will be increasingly tied to their transparency. We scientists, science administration and the publishers all hold the keys to changes.

What would happen if research data remained closed?

Closed data sets increase duplication of effort, add administrative hassle, allow false results to get published more easily, and reduce the speed of scientific advancements. Also, it increases the likelihood of eroding the resources that we have. Data with high future value may get lost in the disks of individual researchers. Also, errors might accumulate if research results cannot later be verified or tested.

“Closed data sets increase duplication of effort, add administrative hassle, allow false results to get published more easily, and reduce the speed of scientific advancements.”

Who or what (project / service) inspires you and makes you optimistic about the future of Open Science?

I think the Polymath project in the UK and NMRLipids later in Finland have paved the way for a new type of culture in research. Furthermore, all initiatives that encourage researchers to open their methods and the underlying data together with scientific articles are taking us in the right direction.

What still needs to be done to get more people to share and open up their research data?

It needs to be much easier than it is at the moment. It takes time for the infrastructure and practices for sharing data to become more established, and researcher training needs to pay attention to this from early on. At the moment, one needs to be enthusiastic to start sharing data because it is seems difficult and messy at first. Also, a change in research culture, including journal practices and the merit system, is needed to make sharing data a default rather than an exception.

And finally, what would a world with far more Open Data look like?

A world with far more Open Data could answer more important scientific questions and their use in societal decision-making and creation of business opportunities could be faster. It is important to recognise, however that not all data can be openly available. Privacy needs to be respected and clear practices should be set within the scientific community on that.

Copyright: Creative Commons CC-BY Licence University of Helsinki

Tags: Finland, Open Data, Open Science, accessibility, advocacy, barriers, collaboration, competition, costs, credits, cultural change, data analysis, data curation, decision-making, default, duplication, duty, errors, false results, innovation, pricing, privacy, public data, publishing, re-use, repetitive data, research, research assessment, research evaluation, research process, sharing, simplicity, society, speed, standard, the cloud, tools, transparency, verification

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