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03 Oct 2016

International Data Forum Opening Plenary Session: Maintaining Scientific Rigor and Enhancing Discovery

By Fotis E. Psomopoulos - RDA EU Early Career  Grant – Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece

International Data Forum was one of the three complementary events, together with SciDataCon and the RDA 8th Plenary,  held during the International Data Week, 11-17 September 2016, Denver (CO), a landmark event jointly organised by the Research Data Alliance, (RDA), CODATA, the Committee on Data of the International Council of Science (ICSU) and the ICSU World Data System (WDS ICSU).

Time        : Wednesday September 14th, 09:00 - 10:30 - Plenary Session
Location: Sheraton Denver Downtown Hotel, Denver, Colorado, US
URL           :

I’ll start with the punchline; open data are the fundamental enabler for the science of the future. This was the take-home message of the opening keynote addresses in this year’s International DataForum event, under the overarching theme on maintaining scientific rigor and enhancing discovery. Although far from a revelation to an audience clearly supporting the Open Data Initiative, it does crystallize in a simple sentence the motivation behind all the joint efforts within RDA.

The plenary session was kicked-off by Heide Hackmann, the Executive Director of the International Council for Science, who immediately established some critical issues on data. First and foremost, that the existing challenges on Data are not limited to borders (national or disciplinary) but are indeed universal issues with a relevance that transcends the individual scientific domains. The fact that there is an absence of a unified voice for an International Science Policy introduces another level of complexity to the already complex Data challenges, both at the governance level as well as at the funders level; an issue well known and widely advocated for in the RDA community. However, there are also positive actions; a South Africa initiative on Open Science is under way and when ultimately established, will provide RDA with an opportunity for a template to coordinate activities at the regional level.

Following this introduction, Philip Bourne, the Associate Director for Data Science at the National Institutes of Health, gave a talk with the provocative title “Making Biomedical Research more like AirBnb”. Although research and AirBnb are two seemingly incompatible entities, they do share some interesting commonalities. Both AirBnb and Research are based on a trusted relationship. In other words, both are platforms that aim to maximize the exchange of services while at the same time maximizing the level of trust between the involved actors. However, although AirBnb is a successful paradigm, there is less uptake of the Open Data Initiative than one would like. There lies the main difference; the perceived value of a service (Data in this case) is thought to be diminishing when in an open access context - which is a far cry from the actual truth. Another major issue in biomedical research is that there is no one established platform. RDA is actively addressing this issue with a number of Interest and Working Groups both in Domain Science (such as the Health Data IG, the Agriculture Data IG and the Long Tail of Science IG). Moreover, any efforts towards pushing in this direction have to deal with the entrenched business models. Despite that however, the Commons platform, which encapsulates the FAIR principles of Open Science, is attempting to provide the pilot case towards a coherent platform for research. If proven successful, the funding paradigm may shift towards providing credit for use of Commons platform and at a higher percentage, as opposed to the more traditional up-front spending in research grants.

Moving beyond the research perspective, Edit Herczog, past member of the European Parliament and Managing Director for Vision & Values SPRL, gave the governance aspects of Open Data with primary focus on the European way of dealing with the challenges. The vision can be encapsulated in the European Open Science Cloud (EOSC) initiative. The establishment of collaborative tools, accessible by all members of the scientific community, can lead to digital highways. But there are also distinct challenges to be addressed as well, clearly presented by Edit as a “Data Dilemma mix”. The Researchers, admittedly the primary Data users, have the tendency to be isolated in their Ivory Tower of Science. And even though this isolation is being slowly diminished, there are still communication issues even within the Scientific community; a Data Scientist and a Researcher more often than not have rather different vocabularies, priorities and perspectives. The Business, another shareholder in the Open Data ecosystem, has a clear aim towards the market and the profit. And both are mistrusted by the Society at large, leading to even further challenges on how to deal with Open Data. The message in a nutshell? A Big Data Society needs to be both inclusive and Data literate, a clear reference to the creeds behind RDA. This clearly outlines a need to teach all stakeholders in the use and broad interpretation of data.

These inspiring talks led to an equally engaging discussion with the audience and a number of key conclusions. First and foremost, Data are becoming a catalyst towards smoothing-out cross-agency efforts, clearly establishing the crucial role of RDA in setting standards and recommendations. These are several efforts currently underway, but each addresses a different facet of similar problems. As such, RDA and Data can become the connecting tissue and the focal point of these efforts. It is also clear that although Data is international, the regulation of Data is happening at a national level. This requires further coordination and better guidelines in facilitating Open Data use across borders, as well as wider adoption of RDA recommendations produced by the respective groups. Finally, an essential part of this process is the coupling of Open Data with Open Science. There are also lost opportunities here; breaking the high walls of Science and identifying other relevant stakeholders in the Data ecosystem can greatly increase the impact of the current efforts. This in turn must lead to a cultural change in research as well; going beyond the publications and other traditional forms of research it is extremely important to highlight and assign value to other forms of research such as software or data.

So, I will come back to my initial statement; open data is clearly posed to become the catalyst in driving research and innovation forward. There are undoubtedly several challenges ahead before we can reach the envisioned future where healthcare is based on well curated health data and data sharing has transitioned beyond the barrier of human and machine. But, by building standardized data libraries, through the adoption of RDA recommendations, we are also definitely on the right track to the research heritage of the future.

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