Interview: Open research and data sharing: Are we hearing what researchers are telling us?

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Interview: Open research and data sharing: Are we hearing what researchers are telling us?
04 Nov 2019

Interview: Open research and data sharing: Are we hearing what researchers are telling us?

Chris Graf, Director, Research Integrity and Publishing Ethics interviews Fiona Murphy, Scholarly Communications Consultant 

Open research – often called open scholarship or open science, is a combination of scientific outputs like journal articles and newly technologically-enabled research practices. There is increasing recognition that we need to innovate both technologically and socially in order to enable people – and incentivize them – to do adopt open research practices. Any change in practice, even one with benefits to the people potentially making that change, requires an activation energy that technical solutions alone do not usually deliver. At the same time, researchers are being required to comply with mandates and policies – originating from institutions, funders, and publishers – that can often be confusing, and even sometimes conflicting.

Fiona Murphy, once a scholarly publisher, now an independent scholarly communications consultant, has been working with funders, institutions, learned societies, and research project teams to support twenty-first century scholarship. She has recently been appointed one of twelve Research Data Alliance Ambassadors, with particular emphasis on supporting good research data practices in the scholarly publishing world and within that an emphasis on learned societies and the Global South. We asked Fiona to tell us what she’s learned from researchers about data sharing.

CG: Thanks for joining us, Fiona. You talk lots with researchers about open research. Which comments left you with a lasting impression?

FM: There is such a wide range of experience and responses when you speak with researchers about Open research and data sharing. Something that really struck me when I visited Botswana last year, for International Data Week, was the realization that local and regional researchers were at even more of a disadvantage than I had thought. Often people have to collect and manage their data at their own expense and in their own time. This means that they greet the idea of then opening their data up, potentially for better resourced researchers who might have superior computing facilities to mine and analyze, with a justifiable sense of unfairness. This problem came up over and over again.

At the same time, even those working in well-resourced institutions experience problems. I’ve worked with climate scientists whose departments are regularly hacked, and who receive a steady bombardment of Freedom of Information Act requests from climate skeptics which puts them in a real ethical quandary: they know that the data should be made available, for transparency and trust, but they are they also keenly aware that these attempts to hack and requests for information are motivated by the desire to discredit their work and professional reputations. I often hear people say “This isn’t what I signed up for.”

CG: Those are powerful stories. The more we learn about FAIR data sharing, the more we realize what the “ask” actually is for many researchers, like those you describe. How is this challenge felt?

FM: The increasing attention being paid to research data by funders and policy makers over the past 10 years or so makes perfect sense in general, high-level terms. Of course, it is rational for them to want the data they (and often indirectly, tax payers) have funded to be re-usable and exploitable for innovation and the public good rather than discarded and possibly funded again. However, when individuals or research groups are actually confronted with these requirements they often, understandably, respond negatively. The most common response is simply not to engage as long as this is feasible – there are widespread rumors that, although certain funders explicitly mandate that data be made FAIR and lodged in certain repositories, they don’t actually check, for instance.

However, even those with a neutral or positive attitude towards Open Scholarship find that it’s a challenge to translate the FAIR principles into their own discipline’s community standards and practices. There can be issues around sensitivity and privacy, as well as concerns about being scooped or inadvertently falling foul of what the pre-eminent researchers in their field approve of. Mistakes with any of these could have potentially catastrophic consequences for Early Career Researchers’ progress in their chosen field. Recently, an enthusiastic proponent of open research remarked privately “Sharing just slows research down”.

CG: So how are you, with the Research Data Alliance (RDA) and its members, listening to what researchers say about how they want to share data, and what they need to do it?

FM: To begin with, many RDA members are also active researchers themselves, or they run facilities or services for researchers. The RDA Europe itself is setting up National Nodes, to enable more people to have direct exposure and input to its initiatives. And of course it has provided me with the remit to try and build relationships and bi-directional knowledge between researchers, especially in the Global South, and with learned societies as loci of subject expertise.

A number of the RDA working and interest groups are seeking to develop common, standards for specific disciplines (such as Health Data, and Rice Data), which should help. Others seek more generally to develop services and frameworks that should ultimately help smooth data sharing experiences. For instance, Scholix is an open source data-literature linking facility, developed from an RDA working group. Ongoing work at RDA includes harmonizing data publication policies for journals, and a model for self-assessing FAIR-ness (at least some of which would be done by machines) which, again, should help. And understanding and the willingness to adapt to emerging practices is growing, especially amongst Early Career Researchers.

What seems to work best is when groups of stakeholders, such as funders and publishers, identify common objectives and are able to work together towards achieving them. The Co-Chairs for the Scholix project, for instance, came from Elsevier, DataCite, OpenAIRE and Australia Research Data Commons, and I think that’s been key to its utility and adoption. 

CG: Why is it important that we continue to listen and work together?

FM: This is a fast-moving, high impact field, yet at the same time, it’s so complex – and it depends not only upon changes to technology and policies, but also to research cultures and incentives. This might feel insuperable, except that the rewards for getting better at it are so great. To build an open, digitally enabled body of knowledge could enable us finally to “know what we know”. We could ask new questions, develop new solutions to the grand challenges facing the planet, and build a far more inclusive society while we do it!

I’ll be working with the Research Data Alliance Europe on their Ambassador program for at least the next year, so would be delighted to hear from anyone who would like to know more, or who has any feedback on any of the issues touched on here.


CG: Thanks so much, Fiona. The RDA is all about building the shared social and technical infrastructure we all need to make sharing research data easier, powering up open research, whether we’re researchers or publishers. If you're a researcher, then our message for you is that we’re doubling efforts to help you get the recognition and impact you need for all your research outputs, data included. Let us know what you think in the comments below. And if you’d like to get involved in one of the Wiley open research and research data initiatives, then let us know that too. Last, Wiley is proud to be an organizational member and to continue its support for RDA.