SciDataCon 2016: Accepted Conference Paper Abstract and Reviewers Comments

As I knew I was going to attend the SciDataCon 2016 in my role as the secretary of the Finnish Committee for Research Data, I decided to submit an abstract for a conference paper for one of the sessions. To kill two birds with four layovers, if you will (flying from Helsinki to Denver and back on a budget is truly an endurance sport).  The session that I felt most suitable in terms of my ongoing research was one titled Getting the incentives right: removing social, institutional and economic barriers to data sharing. I was happy to find out earlier this week that my abstact has been accepted. The reviewers provided some feedback, which I’m thankful for, and requested a few revisions.Below is the abstract (in its original, unrevised form)  with reviewers comments at the bottom. Now all that is left for me to do (in addition to revising the abstact and making it camera ready) is the small task of writing the actual paper. And enduring the gruesome flight itinerary.

Afraid of Scooping? – Case Study on Perceived vs. Actualized Risks of Sharing Research Outputs

Summary

Fear of being scooped is among the most commonly voiced concerns by researchers in discussions concerning Open Science in general and Open Data in particular. Does practicing openness make researchers more likely targets of research misconduct? This abstract describes a study based on two cases of “ultra open” science collaboration, with the aim of comparing perceived risks of real time sharing a wide array of research outputs to those that have realized. The focus is on research integrity related concerns. Preliminary findings are promising: for example, an experiment in openly drafting a funding proposal resulted in other teams focusing their projects on different research themes to avoid direct competition.

Introduction

The current volume of Open Science themed policy initiatives, discussions, events and community action is a clear indicator of the recognition of a need for wider access to scientific knowledge. Open Access to scientific publications is the strand of the movement with the widest acceptance and most success.[1] Progress on other fronts of Open Science, f. e. Open Data and Open Methods (Open Source), has been significantly slower. There are several reasons for this, some due to institutional factors, funding mechanisms or the lack of established workflows. One major factor that stems from the grassroots of research, from individual attitudes and professional cultures adopted by researchers, is fear.

A study commissioned by the Knowledge Exchange network reviewed incentives and disincentives for data sharing. Fear experienced by researchers was at the top of the list of barriers; “fear of competition, of being scooped and therefore reduced publication opportunities.” According to the study, these fears plagued especially early career researchers. They were both afraid of being ridiculed for their immatureness and wary of losing badly needed publications to scooping. When moving up the academic ladder, the possibility of getting laughed at faded in the researchers’ minds, while the threat of scooping persisted. (Van den Eynden & Bishop 2014)

Getting scooped means in the academic world that a researcher (or a team of researchers) beats another to the punch in publishing a research finding. This happens often and only becomes a research integrity offence if one of the researchers/teams got the research idea from the other.[2] Fear of scooping in the context of Open Science can be thus interpreted as fear of becoming a victim of research misconduct.

How well founded is the fear of being unethically scooped due to sharing? What about being ridiculed? Belittling someone’s professional efforts is of course no research fraud, but it also doesn’t exactly make one a shining beacon of integrity either. There is very little evidence on the occurrence of research misconduct, not to mention the effects on the victims. Because of the rarity of sharing research outputs beyond publications, our understanding of the social implications of practicing Open Science are also scarce. As a counterbalance to the fear of scooping there are hopes of transparency through Open Science acting as a cure to at least certain forms of irresponsible research behavior. To encourage more researchers into sharing their research outputs as widely as we need to understand the situation better.

For this case study I have interviewed key researchers from two “ultra open” research collaboration projects. In addition to Open Data, the projects have produced all of their content openly online, inviting and welcoming outside participation. One of the projects even allocated funding to a “research swarm”, an open membership online community operating on a microblogging platform. These two individual cases offer us a glimpse to the challenges and possibilities of research integrity in an Open Science era, as well as the social implications of sharing. The case study is part of an ongoing PhD research project on research integrity regulation in Finland.

Open Collaboration Cases

The two open collaboration cases that form the basis of this study are the NMR Lipids Project (NMRLP) and the Social Media for Citizens and Public Sector Collaboration (SOMUS) project.

The projects were chosen based on the approach of extreme openness towards collaboration and co-authorship. Despite their somewhat radical nature, both of the projects have produced traditional research articles, but for example in the case of NMRLP, the authorship of these publications has been based on self-assessment by the contributors (contributors meaning anyone who has commented on the project blog). Another factor was that the two projects have been coordinated by Finland trained researchers. This is due to the case study being a part of a PhD project focusing on the national Finnish research integrity regulation. This caused for example the Polymath Project to be excluded from the cases.

The NMRLP belongs to the field of molecular physics. It is ongoing at the time of writing, with all of the research outputs available online either in the project blog or GitHub service. The SOMUS ran for two years during 2009-10, although the open online community, Open Research Swarm, that gave birth to the project, predates SOMUS by at least a year. SOMUS was a project in the field of multidisciplinary media studies and all of its research outputs were openly published online during the running of the project. Unfortunately, the outputs were not placed in an open repository post-project and are currently accessible only by request. This is an issue that I will also address in the finished paper.

Research Methods

The preliminary sources for this study are thematic interviews of five open coordinating researchers from the chosen projects, together with the open online content of the NMRLP and the archives of the SOMUS.

This research is multidisciplinary both in terms of methods and theoretical framework, drawing inspiration from behavioral sciences and social sciences, especially sociology of science & technology, with strong roots in social science history, itself very much multidisciplinary in nature. Oral history has been an important point of reference in conducting the interviews.

The goal is to make the collected interview data available for further research use with an open license and through an open online repository, both in audio and textual formats. This is not common practice in qualitative humanist and social scientific research. Sharing qualitative human data is ethically complicated, but I argue that the obstacles are being somewhat exaggerated and the benefits not discussed enough. There is evidence that research subjects can be quite willing to allow re-use of their data, even if the data in question is sensitive (Borg & Kuula 2007), which is not the case for this study. Currently the biggest obstacle for sharing identifiable interview data in Finland is a data privacy ombudsman interpretation a so called broad consent is in breach of law regulating data privacy.

Preliminary Findings

The case study is still ongoing at the time of writing. More definitive results will be available at the time of SciDataCon 2016. Nevertheless, there are some interesting preliminary observations and findings to be shared. Markus Miettinen, one of the key researchers of the NMRLP, compared in a workshop presentation his initial fears when initiating the project with what actually happened. He listed eight risk scenarios, ranging from lack of participants to scooping and personal conflicts. According to him (Laine et al. 2015)

[…] the experiences gained on open research during the NMRlipids project have been extremely positive, and none of the major fears we had before starting the project have actualized. Quite the contrary, the open research approach has proven to be an extremely fruitful as well as rewarding way to do research.

The SOMUS has gathered similarly promising experiences. Opening up research funding proposals, possibly one of the most radical and controversial ideas developed under the Open Science movement umbrella, gets back up in the SOMUS project report (Kronkvist 2011):

Could research funding generally be applied to ‘open calls’? An often-used reason for a closed doors policy is that of competition. Research ideas can be stolen, and project applicants engage in tough battles for funding. It became clear through discussions with other applicants, however, that the open draft actually helped them focus their projects on different research themes to avoid direct competition with Somus. When a text is documented in a wiki, it is easy to find an author and time stamp for the text, making it uncomplicated to solve authorship questions.

To what extent these and other examples drawn from the cases can be generalized and translated to other research fields and environments, will be discussed in the final paper.

Acknowledgements

The author would like to thank Tiina and Antti Herlin Foundation for their continuous financial support to her PhD research, which this study is one part of.

Competing Interests

The author declares that she has no competing interests.

Notes

1   See for example the recent statement made by EU member statements about making all scientific articles freely accessible by 2020: http://english.eu2016.nl/documents/press-releases/2016/05/27/all-european-scientific-articles-to-be-freely-accessible-by-2020

2   Many research integrity guidelines limit the categories of research misconduct to falsification, fabrication and plagiarism (FFP), but for example the Responsible conduct of research and procedures for handling allegations of misconduct in Finland (2013) guideline by the Finnish Advisory board on Research Integrity names misappropriation as a form of research fraud.

References

Borg, S and Kuula, A 2007 Julkisrahoitteisen tutkimusdatan avoin saatavuus ja elinkaari – valmisteluraportti OECD:n datasuosituksen toimeenpanomahdollisuuksista Suomessa. Yhteiskuntatieteellisen tietoarkiston julkaisuja. Tampere, Finland: Yhteiskuntatieteellinen tietorkisto (Finnish Social Science Data Archive). pp. 37.

Kronkvist, J 2011 Somus as an attempt at a new paradigm. In: Näkki et al Social media for citizen participation – Report on the Somus project. VTT Publication 755. Espoo, Finland: VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland.

Laine, H, Lahti, L, Lehto, A, Miettinen, M and Ollila, S 2015 Beyond Open Access – The Changing Culture of Producing and Disseminating Scientific Knowledge. Proceedings of the 19th International Academic Mindtrek Conference. New York: ACM. pp. 202-205 DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1145/2818187.2818282

Van den Eynden, V and Bishop, L 2014 Incentives and motivations for sharing research data, a researcher’s perspective. Knowledge Exchange. Available at http://www.knowledge-exchange.info/event/sowing-the-seed [Last accessed 30 May 2016].

Comments and suggestions by the SciDataCon 2016reviewers

Very concise description of the work done, and the methods. Please have a look at C. Borgman’s recent book about Big Data, Little Data, No Data (MIT), if you have not done so. Have a look at the specific research culture (in the field, institution, countries) which enables, fosters these experiments. What do you think is the probability of such research practices to diffuse more widely, to be adopted by many?
The paper provides a Finland/ Finnish perspective on openly available research outputs – also the project data, for two projects. The content appears interesting and addresses one of the biggest stumbling blocks for data publishing – the fear to be scooped … to become the victim of research misconduct.
Fear of being scooped is one of the major reasons given by researchers as to why they don’t share their data (amongst many other!). This paper reports on 2 case studies in which that fear has found to be unsubstantiated, and that none of the fears of making data available were realised. Whilst this is only a limited survey, having hard evidence on actuality instead of a possibility, is removing yet another social barrier to the string of research data. Although this paper doesn’t discuss incentives, it is suitable for the session as it discusses removing a disincentive. The authors indicate there more results will be available at the time of the conference and these should be included in the paper.
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