Closed for good? – How ethical issues can limit openness

This is a lightning talk I gave at the Knowledge Exchange Pathways to Open Science event in Helsinki today as part of the ‘Benefits, risks & limitations of Open Scholarship’ theme.

I am a doctoral student in economic and social history at the University of Helsinki. One of the research questions I am working on is about the answers that open research processes provide to ethical challenges in research, such as plagiarism, data fabrication and author misconduct.

But today, for the next few minutes, I’m taking on the role of a devil’s advocate.

I argue, that human related data can never be open in a way that is ethically sustainable.

That is, at least if we understand open along the lines of the Open Knowledge Foundations definition, which states that open data is something that can be freely used, modified, and shared by anyone, for any purpose.

I collect interview data for my research. I want to share that data already during the research process. My interviewees are easily identifiable: former chairs and secretary generals of Finnish Advisory Board on Research Integrity and key researchers of certain open research projects. There isn’t much point in anonymizing the interview data, although I’m prepared to go there if they request it. I’m giving my subjects a consent form to sign. By signing they agree that their interviews can be freely used for educational and research purposes, without embargo. Commercial use is not included in the consent, already a breach against the open definition.

The topic of my research isn’t sensitive in the traditional sense, since it deals with people in their professional roles, without going into matters of health or family relationships. I have subjected my research plan to ethical evaluation, which deemed it ethically responsible.

Do I feel like I can declare with certainty that no harm will come to my subjects because of my research? No, I can’t. We live in a world where researchers studying subjects such as (and these are real examples from Finnish research) nutrition, wolf populations and indoor air problems get death threats. The Internet is an unpredictable and often unkind environment.

The Helsinki University ethical review board that evaluated my research gave me two questions to ponder:

“How does the choice to not anonymize the interview data affect the quality of gathered information (sample, content)? There is a danger, that ethically critical aspects will not fully surface due to fear of labeling, leading to a subdued result.”

I understand this concern, but in the case of historical research and oral history, if we hide the identity of the speaker, we might hide the historical context, and in so doing destroy the historical value of the data.

The second question is even more haunting.

“Could interview data that is in principle harmless give rise to new sensitive information on research subjects?”

This one is giving me sleepless nights.

Currently a lot of human related research data is being routinely destroyed due to privacy concerns. All the while private companies are collecting vast amounts of human related data from citizens who don’t really like giving up their data and certainly don’t trust these companies, but are just too resigned and without alternatives (because digital has become the prerequisite of social) in order to resist.

So what do we do? Change the definition of ‘open’? Change the definition of ‘ethical’? Accept as inevitable that at least some human sciences get left behind? Or is there a way we can move from closing human data for good into opening it for good?

To rephrase the question: how can we build a culture of trust and what kind of mechanisms are needed to support it, so that we can preserve qualitative human data to generations to come?


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