Can too much openness ruin a research interview?

Interviewing as a method of acquiring research material calls for a lot of sensitivity. When doing a research interview, you try to influence the person you are talking to as little as possible. If the other one is searching for right words, you don’t jump in with helpful suggestions, like you might normally. You certainly don’t try to convince them of anything. The questions posed should be as neutral as they can, allowing a wide array of different possible answers. Instead of asking “Was it like this?” you go “What was it like?”.

But what if one, like me, is trying to do research openly? The work plan is published for everyone to see, revealing some hypothesis and other preconceptions about research outcomes. The risk that this information will influence the interviews and through that the research results is to me very real. I am an active advocate of open science, so writing the following words is not the easiest: at least for those of us who call ourselves social scientists, there really exists a thing called too much openness, and it can jeopardize the validity of our research.

In addition to (contemporary) archival documents, interview data is an important part of my source material. I talked the problem of too much openness over last week with my supervisor, Erika Löfström. We didn’t find a simple fix-it-all solution, but instead came up with a concept called “hallittu avoimuus”. Controlled openness would be the literal translation, but to me it sounds like a euphemism for anti-openness, whatever that could be. I prefer the term conscious openness. What it means is basically that it’s good to pause and think before pressing “enter”.  Not a revolutionary idea, I know, but I’ve noticed that saying aloud seemingly obvious things can often prove surprisingly fruitful.

To me openness is not a value in itself, but a means to an end. For example my primary motive for this blog is not attention just for the sake of attention. The point of open science and research on a systemic level is to increase the quality of research, strengthen the role of evidence based knowledge in the society, make research more resource efficient and more accessible. On an individual level the benefits are networks and community, ideas and feedback, as well as increased impact of one’s work (none of these of course come for free, but that’s another blog post).

In order for science to improve through openness, we need to be conscious about what goes out there. That it’s information, not just noise. That it’s not counter-productive. Like data without proper metadata is just numbers, a research plan that becomes a self-fulfilling hypothesis is just letters (and that’s the positive scenario). No new (reliable) knowledge gets created in either case.

Conscious openness is actually very close to what anyone dealing with human subjects has had to practice already since long. A concept called informed consent is at the core of ethical research with human subjects, both in invasive medical research and non invasive social scientific research. The subjects need to know what they are getting themselves involved in, which is easier said then done. How to inform the subjects without affecting results? How to tell them, often non-experts in the field involved, about complex research questions so that they really truly understand all of the aspects? How to do this in a way that doesn’t scare them, insult them or bore them to death? It’s not enough to explain about the premise of the research, you have to also give detailed accounts on data management. This is often where ethical review steps in.

Open research as a process could take lead from the practices of forming informed consent for research subjects: What does this public have the right / need / interest  to know? How should I choose my words in order to avoid misunderstandings? The biggest difference to earlier practices is that open becomes the default setting, from which you refrain only with a good cause. A key aspect of the process, one that determines whether the research in question is legitimately open or just being open-washed, is transparency concerning the various bits and pieces you are not publishing and why.

How shall I be putting this conscious transparent openness construction of mine into practice? Right now I’m frozen in the finger-on-enter-but-pausing-and-thinking phase as I’m preparing to collect interview data. I will publish an updated work plan and a post detailing the intellectual whereabouts of my work sometime during the coming weeks.

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