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Openness is everything, and its importance is increasing

“Openness is everything, and its importance is increasing”
Name: Ari Asmi
Position: Research project co-ordinator
Institution: University of Helsinki and ICOS ERIC infrastructure
Country: Finland
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An interview with Ari Asmi on 30 May 2017

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

As a researcher, my background is in climate research, where long measurement time series are essential. Climate cannot be researched otherwise. In my dissertation I collected datasets and trend analysis of particulates. As I collected the material, I had to contact many people around the world. I had heard rumors that someone might have some datasets somewhere. There was an awful lot of negotiation with each and every one about how data could be used and under what conditions. It was an enormous operation. It was then when I became aware of the importance of data issues.

“Avoid unpleasant surprises.”

After the dissertation, I moved to research support services. I’m now working on research infrastructures, and data-related issues are an obvious problem there also. So, due to the difficulties I have encountered, it was only natural that I got interested in research data. Scientists are aware of the importance of research data concerns, but they might be interested in it from a more theoretical point of view. They are used to thinking that someone else is taking care of the practicalities, which often is the case. Caring for research data policy is not the main task for researchers, as it should not be, but researchers should be aware of it in some way in order to avoid unpleasant surprises.

What is your relation to open data?

For the reasons I mentioned earlier, openness is everything, and its importance is increasing. When I started working with open data, it was more a philosophical question for me: when practicing science, the results must be verifiable. The idea of transparency of publicly-funded research was also important. No one should be able to reserve research material for his or her own use simply because that person thinks he/she might write another paper on the basis of the material later.

“No one should be able to reserve research material for his or her own use simply because that person thinks he/she might write another paper on the basis of the material later.”

In recent years, particularly after the hacking of the e-mails of the climate scientists at the University of East Anglia, climate and environmental scientists have noticed the fact that there is also another reason for open research data. The question is not just about philosophy of science; openness of data can also serve as proof that the data has not been manipulated unethically. Transparency makes your argumentation much stronger. Furthermore, it makes it possible to show where your conclusions have been derived from.

How are you involved with open data?

Currently, I am active in the open data field in different positions. I lead a European project which aims to make the datasets from environmental research infrastructures (e.g. observation networks) more accessible to the scientists and society as a whole. In addition, I work in and with many international organisations, such as GEO and Research Data Alliance, on issues related to open data, such as how to cite dynamic (changing) datasets and how to document the workflows from raw data to scientific data products. In addition, I actively participate in the civil discussion and initiatives related to open data; for example, I chair a working group developing data citation recommendations to the Finnish universities.

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

The most frustrating thing is when researchers ask what is the personal benefit they gain from openness. I am often forced to justify the openness with very far-reaching arguments. Thus, the biggest problem at the moment is that there is no reward for an individual researcher. When recruiting new staff, a university could ask what kind of open datasets the researcher has published, how much those datasets have been used, and how relevant they have been to the discipline. At present, reference databases and published articles are thoroughly checked over, but datasets are just additional information at best. Currently, research data is not considered as a part of demonstrating a researcher’s competence.

“I’m afraid that research data remaining closed will lead to a situation where it is more and more difficult to rely on the conclusions of scientific research.”

Another interesting possibility would be to grant open data awards. This could give a little push to increase the appreciation of openness. As we all know, part of researchers’ work is to promote themselves and to raise their reputation. Hence, we need concrete proof that open data is improving the reputation of researchers. Of course, the award dynamic is just an offshoot and side issue. Real scientific research includes the sharing of evidence. Similarly, the correct scientific method of research includes reporting. No one questions reporting in article form because it is part of the system and the reward system supports it.

What would happen if research data remained closed?

I’m afraid that research data remaining closed will lead to a situation where it is more and more difficult to rely on the conclusions of scientific research. The amount of research data is growing at a fast pace, and no one can be aware of that background material on which the conclusions are based. This can lead to a very fragmented understanding of the state of scientific truth. It may also hinder scientific discussion and, in fact, it hampers scientific discourse already at the moment, as people do not have the same information sources.

“If we at the same time remain in a closed system, it will be an easy job for pressure groups to drive their own goals.”

If the current closed data state of affairs continues, and given the current political pressure against science, I think it will be bad for us. And I’m not talking about climate research alone. If a research topic or research area has any social importance, and if we at the same time remain in a closed system, it will be an easy job for pressure groups to drive their own goals. Their arguments could be just as strong as the researcher’s arguments if there were no supporting data on which the researcher could base his or her claims.

Who or what inspires you and makes you optimistic about the future of Open Science?

Fortunately, the importance of Open Science is understood in many respects in the field of science. This is obvious in the recent actions by the European Commission, the Academy of Finland, and the University of Helsinki. Clearly, Open Science is considered necessary by many people.

A few years ago I was at a meeting in China. At that time, the results of the measurement of air quality were not public in China, even though the study was conducted by universities. We, as Europeans, did not want to tell them what to do. However, a group of local academics and older professors felt that the measurement results should be openly available. They wrote a letter to the Academy, and stated that the practice is incorrect and should be changed. I don’t know what happened afterwards, but in my view this is an illustrative example: the change started from researchers, with an issue they deemed necessary. Such cases give us faith.

Another positive thing is the students’ response to the current situation. They have been surprised that very often research data is not openly available. It’s strange to them, and they ask why it is not open. I then have to answer that it is because of practical reasons.

The development of the tools must also be taken into account. Tools for data processing are improving all the time. And when tools get better, publishing of data becomes increasingly easier. Eventually, the effort needed for publishing might diminish so that publishing is accomplished more easily.

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

By creating incentives and improving data tools, openness is becoming more common. Motivating researchers is important, but opening up data must also be made easy. The easier the opening up of data is, the more it will be done.

“The easier the opening up of data is, the more it will be done.”

In the research infrastructure, we have the advantage that our thinking is strategic, and we have a certain vision of the products we want to make. However, individual researchers may have very heterogeneous research data and, in those situations, libraries and e-infrastructures, such as EUDAT, will be important.

And finally, what would a world with far more open data look like?

There is a tremendous European project called the European Open Science Cloud (EOSC). The idea of the project is to open the entire research activity, from planning stages to final product. The project also includes descriptions of all the contributions of each researcher. This information could be utilised in many ways. When the whole process is visible, it is easy to see the different roles of people. Such a system could be used to show what roles the researcher has had in the research process. At the same time, the system would show, more clearly than today, what kind of choices have been made during the research process. This would make Open Science much more credible. In my opinion, EOSC has a lot of promise, but the future will tell.

“Students and scientists wanted to be scientists, but they were forced to be academics.”

In the current system, incentives are very strange, and they are not necessarily beneficial to science. Recently I tweeted an article that discussed how students and scientists wanted to be scientists, but they were forced to be academics. The difference is that an academic writes articles and tries to get them published in journals rather than trying to do the best possible science. The point is that people are forced to maximise the incentives instead of doing the best science. Whatever the indicator is, people try to maximise their interests in relation to that indicator.

Copyright: Creative Commons CC-BY Licence University of Helsinki

Tags: Europe, Finland, Open Data, Open Science, accessibility, awards, benefits, career development, change, data citation, data processing, ethics, incentives, infrastructure, manipulation, metrics, motivation, process, provenance, publishing, re-use, reputation, research, research assessment, research evaluation, rewards, services, sharing, society, tools, transparency, truth, verification, workflows

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