My CV of failures

So far, this has been a mentally tough year for me. I wrote a long post detailing all the difficulties, but then decided to erase it. The main reason why I’ve had a tough time, is that there have been too many opportunities, too many interesting directions to pursue, and I’ve ended up being snowed-under with work. And with me, too much work means that not much work gets done. But to complain about my own inability to satisfactorily organize my life, when I have the most freedom and security a person can have, would be juvenile and ungrateful. I am writing this post from a seaside café in Helsinki, while my daughter is playing with her father nearby. It breaks my heart to sit here in comfort and safety and think about my researcher colleagues in Turkey, not to mention academics from Syria and other conflict-ridden areas of the world.

I’m drafting a conference paper about the fear of being scooped due to sharing research outputs and have therefore been thinking a lot about the social side of open science. For me, adopting open by default attitude towards my work has been a no-brainer. I haven’t been communicating about it a lot lately, but it’s more due to humble progress than anything else. I personally feel zero fear, when it comes to opening my work. I’m not saying this to brag or blame, as I am very cognisant of the unique and privileged situation I’m in.

First of all I don’t consider the likelihood of being scooped very high: choice of research subject and the way I’ve formulated the research questions are the sum of years worth of personal experience and networking. In social science a research project can be as unique as a fingerprint: relationships with interviewees, understanding of the phenomena, familiarity with sources etc. cannot often be replicated (that makes the transparency of the process ever more crucial, but that’s another can of worms, not to be opened in this particular post). Secondly, if someone despite all tried to scoop me, it would be very easy to prove priority, both because of the one-of-a-kindness of the project and the public record on this blog and Zenodo.

Thirdly, and in my mind most importantly, I don’t care if I don’t make it as a professional researcher. If my refusal to pursue certain journals and career paths will result in a failure to get funding or positions, so be it. I’m a Finnish citizen. There’s been a lot of talk about the fall of the welfare state, but at least for now, it’s still very much a reality. I don’t have to worry about health insurance or pension. I’m covered just by existing. My daughter will get exactly the same good-quality education whether I’m unemployed or a professor at the University of Helsinki. There are additional personal reasons for my attitude: I’m not a competitive or career-driven person, and would be happy to be working on almost any kind of job, since I’m able to find intellectual fulfillment also outside of professional life. I consider myself a millionaire in terms of social capital, through networks of friends and family.

Because of this privileged position of mine, I don’t really see an alternative to open by default. Everything else would feel selfish and wasteful.

So, to pick myself up a little, celebrate all the good things I have, and to pay homage to struggling academics all over the world, I decided to write a CV of failures (inspired by Johannes Haushofer). It is a wonderful thing to be allowed to fail. I have probably forgotten many important failures, but I try to keep better record from now on, and make reporting failures more routine.

Heidi Laine

CV of (academy related) failures

Degree programs I didn’t get into

2014 & 2015
Paid position of doctoral student in the Doctoral Programme in Political, Societal and Regional Change, University of Helsinki Doctoral School in Humanities and Social Sciences

Research funding I didn’t get

2014
Emil Aaltonen Foundation, Wihuri Foundation, Finnish Cultural Foundation, Kone Foundation

2015
Emil Aaltonen Foundation, Wihuri Foundation, Finnish Cultural Foundation, Kone Foundation

Funding calls into which I put a significant effort as a consortia member and didn’t get funding

2014
Horizon 2020 call: SEAC.2.2014 Responsible Research and Innovation in Higher Education Curricula

2015
Tieteen tiedotus ry. funding call with a project proposal on a research pitch training tour & related events around Finland

2016
“Crowdsourcing: engaging communities effectively in food and feed risk assessment” : OC/EFSA/AMU/2015/03

Meta-failures

2015&2016
Considered applying for the European University Institute (EUI) PhD program, but finally decided against it partly due to laziness, partly because they require certificates that cost money. I could have afforded them, but I resent the general idea that I have to pay in order to apply for a position.

2016
I didn’t apply for funding from the Emil Aaltonen and Wihuri Foundations this year. Just didn’t have the time and energy. And frankly it didn’t feel worth my while, since I suspect that once you have funding for dissertation from one Finnish foundation, the others won’t fund you.

I don’t have that many failures to report because of my junior status as a researcher, but also due to a maybe tad too slack attitude. I will do my best to keep on failing in order to make this CV more impressive.

 

How Would I Cheat (and Other Questions on Openness & Integrity)

The ongoing discussion in Finland around the suspected research Misconduct at the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland, which has gained also the attention of the Retraction Watch blog, reminded me to finally publish the transcript of my presentation at the 2015 Academic Mindtrek conference. The presentation deals with the links between openness and integrity in research. I give an estimate of the amount of research fraud in Finland and conclude with a little exercise called ‘How would I cheat?’ (to know the answer you have to scroll all the way down). The presentation was part of a workshop called ‘Beyond Open Access – The changing culture of producing and disseminating scientific knowledge’, that I organized in my role as the Open Knowledge Finland Open Science working group core person. The other presenters were Anne Lehto from the University of Tampere Library, Markus Miettinen from Freie Universität Berlin, Samuli Ollila from Aalto University and Leo Lahti from University of Turku (currently working at KU Leuven). Ironically enough the extended abstract was published as toll access, but here is the PDF. You can also check the recorded presentations here (mine is awful, I’ve gotten a lot more confident since).

In this presentation I will talk about bad scientific behaviour enforced and made possible by the current paradigm of “closed science”, and the solutions that open science could offer.

My academic background is in social science history. I have one foot in research administration and science policy and another one in research. After (and before) finishing my masters degree in Economic and Social history at University of Helsinki I worked in organizations such as Council of Finnish Academies, Finnish Advisory Board on Research Integrity and IT Center for Science CSC. The first one introduced me through learned societies to the concept of research community, the second to responsible conduct of research and the last to the idea of open science. Since receiving a grant from the Tiina and Antti Herlin Foundation earlier this year I have been able to combine these three things into a research subject. My subject is closely related to the theme of this presentation, but I will get back to it little bit later. In addition to being a doctoral student I am also an active member of Open Knowledge Foundation Finland as the core person of the Open Science working group.

Now that you know the context, we can move forward by defining the key concepts (social scientists love to talk about concepts). What do I mean by open science, research integrity and responsible conduct for research? Let’s take the exercise even further: what do I mean by open and by science? I like clear concepts, but at the same time I like to be quite liberal with them. First of all I understand science in the same sense as the Finnish word “tiede”, German “Wissenschaft” and French “Science”; as something that encompasses all academic research, not just natural sciences. The meaning of openness, at least in the context of open science, to me goes deeper than just public, or free of charge.  I understand open science as something that doesn’t concern only researchers, but the society as a whole. I see all of these concepts having some kind of link to open science or discussions about it. To me the long term goal should actually be making the concept open science obsolete. All good science should be open, meaning that research methods and chains of reasoning should be transparent, the data open for re-use, replication and scrutiny and research results available to anyone interested, in a format that is accessible and language that is understandable (by which I mean no jargon, and yes, this applies to all fields from political science to cosmology. Every research has societal relevance, it just needs to be recognised and communicated, for example in a summary).

What is research integrity

An individual is said to possess the virtue of integrity if the individual’s actions are based upon an internally consistent framework of principles. The substance of research integrity are the commonly accepted professional principles that all fields of research share. This set of principles is referred to as responsible conduct of research (RCR for short). Research integrity and RCR should not be confused with the many field specific ethical codes of conduct that regulate for example the medical sciences.

So RCR is the lowest common denominator for good scientific research. The flip side of RCR is research misconduct and research fraud. Steering clear should be pretty basic: don’t claim someone else’s text as your own, don’t tamper your data in order to get more dramatic results, don’t invent your own data. This is the unholy trinity of research misconduct: fabrication, falsification and plagiarism. The Finnish RCR guideline also adds misappropriation, so at least while you’re in Finland, you should also refrain from stealing other people’s ideas (it’s not illegal though, ideas don’t have copyright). RCR principles are most often understood as not taking stands on questions of excellence. You can be the most virtuous researcher and still produce boondoggle research, just like doing bad quality research, for example using too small sample size or jumping into conclusion (like assuming a correlation between high levels of ice cream consumption and  cases of drowning, etc.), is not considered misconduct.

But irresponsible practices don’t stop at the FFP (+M, the Finnish addition). There is a vast “grey area” between clear cut misconduct and recommendable behaviour. It is where things get tricky. Is it bad practice to name a more distinguished researcher as a co-author, when in fact they had very little to do with producing the article? Is it wrong to tell in a conference poster about results that you haven’t quite verified yet, but are 99,9% sure to get to? Is it really so terrible, if in your list of publications you move your name first in a list of authors, just for this one article? Surely there’s no harm in translating “docent” as “assistant professor” in your English CV? Adjunct professor, assistant professor, who’s counting? The grey area is full of practices that are widely spread but problematic. Some of them have even strong arguments for them, like adding a professors name to a students paper. They both win, one gets more attention, the other stays relevant, while having had to swap research for red tape.

How big is the misconduct problem

I will read you a quote from the Royal Dutch Academy’s report on responsible research data management, that reflects very well my understanding of the situation:

“Very little if anything is known about the frequency of violations against scientific integrity. Only a very limited amount of research has been carried out on this phenomenon. Estimates vary from “never” to claims that for every case of research fraud brought to light, there are approximately 100,000 undiscovered violations, both major and minor. With estimates and claims veering wildly from one extreme to the other, we can only conclude that we simply do not know how big the problem of scientific misconduct actually is. The estimates and claims are no less extreme in the Netherlands. Much depends on how we define research fraud. Do we mean only the most serious cases of FFP, or are we also referring to minor instances of improper behaviour in everyday research practice? Those who say that the incidence of fraud is negligible are thinking of rare cases of falsification; those who claim that fraud is widespread are thinking of everyday behaviour. As long as there is no proper, evidence-based research on fraud, all claims are mere speculation.”

To get at least a rough idea let’s look at some figures we have available from Finland. In Finland there is in place a unified process of handling misgivings of research misconduct. By undersigning the RCR guideline document a research institute promises to deal with all suspected cases of bad behaviour inside it’s walls according to this process. One of the demands made in the guideline is that Finnish Advisory Board on Research Integrity needs to be informed whenever a research misconduct investigation is taking place. Since the list of undersigned organizations covers practically the entire Finnish research community, the boards archives should in theory hold information on all suspected and confirmed misconduct at least since 1998.

A survey conducted by the board in 2003 indicated that the undersigned organizations were in fact quite trustworthy in reporting misconduct to the board. The survey concerned the years 1998-2002, during which time the board had received information on nine confirmed cases of research fraud. According to the survey the correct number of occurrences was eleven.

If the figure gotten from the survey holds true, during the years in questions there was on average less than three research fraud cases in Finland. No surveys have been conducted since 2003, but according to the board’s annual reports the order of magnitude has remained stable. For example based on the 2012 annual report the number of frauds for 2012 was five, for 2011 three and for 2010 two (even though numbers were on the rise during the years mentioned, the small overall amount doesn’t allow conclusions without further analysis on the individual cases).

The figures seem very low even considering the relatively small size of the Finnish research community. According to a meta-analysis of 18 surveys (by Daniele Fanelli) asking researchers about their working practices, up to 2% admitted having fabricated, falsified or modified data or results at least once. The article where the result was published states that “[c]onsidering that these surveys ask sensitive questions and have other limitations, it appears likely that this is a conservative estimate of the true prevalence of scientific misconduct.” Let’s assume that there are 7000 academic researchers in Finland. That’s the number of members of The Finnish Union of University Researchers and Teachers. 2% of 7000 is 140. Continuing this exercise based on the figures mentioned earlier let’s estimate that the average number of confirmed misconduct cases brought to the board’s attention would be five per year, (there are no long-term statistics).  This brings us to an estimate of 115 cases during 1992-2013. These two roughly estimated figures (140 corrupt researchers and 115 guilty-verdicts) are at least in the same ball-park. But when one considers that the actual number of people doing research in institutions bound by the RCR guideline is probably much higher than 7000, that the 2 % from the survey is a conservative estimate and that the amount of caught fraudsters between 1992 and today in Finland is in reality well below 115, it is impossible not to conclude that a lot of misconduct goes unnoticed.

This in itself is not shocking, since no regulatory system ever was airtight. But for the credibility of Finnish research it would be important to understand more about that inevitable gap between what comes to light and what doesn’t. Some critics have hinted that self regulation is just a way for the scientific community to sweep problems under the rug.

One solution to the challenge of misconduct is to tackle the phenomena at the root, instead of chasing wrongdoers. The question is why do researchers cheat?

Distorted incentives created by the journal article

What has the article to do with bad behaviour and grey areas? The metric systems built around articles creates distorted incentives for science, making misconduct more appealing. Everyone working in or around academic research knows the expression “publish or perish”. For the most ambitious it is not enough to just publish, they want to publish in the most prestigious journals, with the highest impact factors. In order to get your article to the likes of Science and Nature, you need to have sensational results. Like finding out that disorderly environments promote stereotypes and discrimination, or that openly gay canvassers could shift voter’s view towards supporting same-sex marriage, or that mice cells could be “reprogrammed” by soaking them in mildly acidic liquid. As many of you probably recognised, these examples are drawn from some of the most scandalous cases of research fraud during the past few years. The papers in question were published in Science and Nature.

I’m not particularly trying to point a finger at these two journals, but it doesn’t seem to be entirely coincidental, that these famous fraudsters have emerged from their pages. Nobel laureate Randy Schekman called in 2013 out a boycott against big prestigious journals, of which he named especially Science, Nature and Cell, calling them “luxury-journals”. He accused them on focusing on topics that are sexy and will likely make waves at the expense of research integrity and scientific quality. He also lashed out against the impact factor, calling it a “toxic influence” and saying that “A paper can become highly cited because it is good science – or because it is eye-catching, provocative, or wrong.” Schekmans antidote was open access, especially the journal eLife, editor of which he himself happened to be.

I am all for open access, as long as it’s not of the hybrid type, but I don’t agree with Schekman in that open access would solve the problem of distorted incentives. Open Access journals are in many ways bound by the same mechanisms as traditional journals. If Science, Nature and Cell seized to exist today, some other journals would most likely take their places. If all journals were to turn their business models into open access over night, I don’t think that would eradicate research misconduct. After all, the publish or perish mentality is linked to the article based metrics, not the business models of journals.

Why did Diederik Stapel cheat? He is the man behind the research that showed a correlation between messy environment and tendency towards discrimination. In an interview to the New York Times he described the motives behind fabricating research results as aesthetic: “It was a quest for aesthetics, for beauty — instead of the truth,” he said. According to the story he described his behavior as an addiction that drove him to carry out acts of increasingly daring fraud, like a junkie seeking a bigger and better high. In other words, he committed fraud because he could, because it paid off and he didn’t get caught. For the motives of the other two researchers, Michael LaCour of the gay canvasser fame and Haruko Obokata who was behind the STAP cell controversy, I can only speculate, since they haven’t done any tell-all interviews yet, but both of them had very promising, almost shooting-star like careers before getting caught on misconduct. When it comes to their so called crimes, it looks like LaCour followed Stapels footsteps by making up his own data, while Obokata tampered with her specimen, thus creating desired result.

As a fraudster Stapel is in a league of his own. With 58 retracted articles he has earned fourth spot on the Retraction Watch blogs leaderboard. He is also, at least in part, to blame for the so called replication crisis in social psychology, to which Michael LaCour only added fuel. An entity called Centre for Open Science has quite smartly turned the crisis into a research project, called the Reproducibility Project: Psychology. They tried to replicate the experiments of 100 published studies. Unfortunately the article containing the results appeared in Science and is thus behind a paywall.

The Center has also taken part in bringing forth a set of recommendations called the Transparency and Openness Guidelines (TOP for short). As you might have already guessed, they aren’t really about open science or open data. Where data sharing is concerned the TOP is about providing research data for replication attempts after the fact, after the research has been published, and only for replication purposes. To me this feels like a very limited solution.

I much prefer the response that Stapels countrymen had at the Royal Dutch Academy (KNAW). They drew the conclusion that there was probably something lacking in the data management practices, if a fabrication of such a scale was possible without anyone noticing. The Academy conducted a survey among Dutch researchers and found out that the data management indeed often left room for improvement. It was the usual story, data stored on personal computers etc. The report concluded that “Maximum access to data supports pre-eminently scientific methods in which researchers check one another’s findings and build critically on one another’s work. In recent years, advances in information and communication technology (ICT) have been a major contributing factor in the free movement of data and results.” The report comes very close to recommending open data policies, but doesn’t quite get there. The year was 2013 and open science has taken big leaps since than. Perhaps if the report was written today the recommendations might have been more radical.

The report also examined the codes and guidelines in place, in case they were to blame for sloppy data management and needed tightening. The conclusion shows common sense in recommending that instead of setting up new regulations, researchers should be made more aware of the existing ones.

Openness in RCR guidelines

And boy there sure are codes of conduct to be aware of. The journal Lancet reported in 2013 about 49 sets of ethical guidelines for research in place in 19 European countries. To be fair all of these are not about RCR, but field specific ethical codes. Still, one researcher gets to deal with quite a few guidelines, at least in theory. Let’s do a mini survey. How many of the Finnish researchers in the room have read the document “Responsible conduct of Research and procedures for handling allegations of Misconduct in Finland”? How many of you have at least heard about the European Code of Conduct for Research Integrity? How about the Singapore Statement? It is clear that problems with research integrity will not go away by writing these type of texts. It is equally obvious that there is a communication deficit here, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t important to define and put in writing common values for science, even if it’s symbolic. The principles written in the guidelines are the ones that good quality research has lived by for decades. The guidelines merely reflect the values of the research community, not install them. Like openness. Open science is sometimes presented as something new, but when you read a few of the guidelines, you see that it is already there, at the core of good science. Let’s take a quick look at the three earlier mentioned codes.

None of the three documents directly refer to the concept open science, which doesn’t mean that they are anti-open, just that the term is a relatively recent invention.

The Singapore Statement is the most conservative of the three. It demands data sharing, sort of: “5. Research Findings: Researchers should share data and findings openly and promptly, as soon as they have had an opportunity to establish priority and ownership claims.” So in principle data should be shared, but the mention of establishing priority and ownership claims give a way out to those not so keen on sharing.

The European Code of Conduct on Research Integrity uses stronger terms when speaking about openness and data sharing, which makes sense, since it is meant for a narrower audience than the Singapore Statement and therefore the text doesn’t need to please all and everyone. Also the European Commission was quite positive about open access already at that time (five years ago), for example implementing an open access pilot and funding OpenAIRE in FP7, thus encouraging positive stands towards openness in Europe.  The European Code mentions openness and accessibility as one of the principles of integrity in scientific and scholarly research. The text goes on to state that “Objectivity requires facts capable of proof, and transparency in the handling of data. Researchers should be independent and impartial and communication with other researchers and with the public should be open and honest.”

The Code encourages data sharing:

  1. Data: All primary and secondary data should be stored in secure and accessible form, documented and archived for a substantial period. It should be placed at the disposal of colleagues. The freedom of researchers to work with and talk to others should be guaranteed.

 

The above mentioned point is made in a portion of the text that lists things that should be taken into consideration when drafting national guidelines, since, according to the document, some issues may be subject to cultural differences and cannot therefore be incorporated into a universal code of conduct. In other words it’s an additional suggestion, not part of the code’s core.

Where do the Finns stand on all things open and data? Here: “2. The methods applied for data acquisition as well as for research and evaluation, conform to scientific criteria and are ethically sustainable. When publishing the research results, the results are communicated in an open and responsible fashion that is intrinsic to the dissemination of scientific knowledge.”, and here: ”4. The researcher complies with the standards set for scientific knowledge in planning and conducting the research, in reporting the research results and in recording the data obtained during the research.” In addition there is the following mention under the headline “Disregard for the responsible conduct of research”: “inadequate record-keeping and storage of results and research data”.

How would I cheat

In the beginning of this presentations I promised to get back to my own research. In the workshop description I also stated that the workshop would be about practical examples. So I decided to combine the two and conclude with a little game called “how would I cheat?”.

The center around which my doctoral research evolves, is the Finnish definition of responsible conduct of research. My research questions focus on delving it’s past, present and future. I approach the  Finnish RCR guideline from three different perspectives: 1) the defining and negotiating of the content, 2) the practical application of the values and the handling process described in the guideline and 3) the standing against changing trends of research practices.

In plain language falsification means doctoring data and / or results. One of my aims is to produce statistics concerning allegations of misconduct and cases of identified misconduct in Finland during 1998-2012. As I mentioned earlier the Finnish Advisory Board on Research Integrity’s archive should hold information on all such cases in Finland. That is most probably not the case, since the guidelines have been enforced in different institutions to varying degrees. I could tweak the data to lean this way or that way, f. e. to show that certain disciplines have produced more investigations than others (which is likely, my hypothesis is that research fields have different cultures when it comes to handling misconduct, meaning that there could be departments that are more likely to report things to higher levels). I could do this in order to create more dramatic results and gain more attention for my work, or to prove an idea that I in my gut KNOW to be true, but that the damn data will not support.

Chances for getting caught for this one aren’t too bad, because the records are mainly on paper, residing in an uninviting bunker archive. But the number of misconduct investigations in Finland is so low, we are talking most likely about tens, not hundreds of cases, that dramatic results would raise questions, or at least enough interest for other people to go digging in the archive themselves in order to find out more detailed information. Which they of course then wouldn’t find.

Fabrication means inventing things out of thin air. I’ve been struggling to find an example of open research project from the humanities for my case study about the way in which RCR is put into practice in open and collaborative research projects. Maybe I should fabricate one! It would be a lot of work, but doable.

First I would need to come up with a research question, invent participants and their backgrounds and then fabricate a blog detailing this made-up research. I could actually commit two frauds with one stone and plagiarize the content of the blog, copying and pasting from research blogs, articles, etc.  For the discussion part I could copy actual discussions found online. When a text is online and machine readable, it is easy to detect fraud if looked into, but I would rely on no-one ever suspecting that something like comments on a blog could be stolen. I would have to be more careful with the actual blog posts. Older printed material (f. e. from the 90’s) would be ideal, which means I would need to transliterate a lot, but I think it would be worthwhile, since it would significantly lower the chances of someone detecting the fraud. A big part of the blog’s content would be nonsense, because making it coherent would (at least almost) make it a real research, and that would spoil the cheating, wouldn’t it.

The second phase would be inventing the interviews, i. e. the actual data of my research. I could invent all kinds of drama, but since my whole plan would be to not attract too much attention to the fabricated research behind the fabricated interviews, I would want to make it as boring as possible and paint the research as an uneventful boondoggle. The main participants, the one’s I would “interview”, would be made-up people from made-up universities. I could create false LinkedIn profiles (ResearchGate doesn’t accept an invented university, or do they?) with e-mail addresses directing incoming mail to me, just in case someone should start digging.

Likelihood of getting caught: very high. I think this plan has “Titanic” written all over it. When I think about the amount of work this would require… oh dear. Actually the laboriousness might heighten the chance of success a little: people would think that no-one in their right mind would go through this much trouble to achieve so little.

So now, after having prevented at least one case of research misconduct through openness, my own, I leave you with the following take-home messages:

Open science has the potential to reduce research misconduct through added transparency.

Open science is in line with the existing RCR principles.

Open science is responsible science.

Informed consent

I am currently working on a case study on responsible conduct of research in the context of open research collaboration. I have chosen three research projects that have been conducted online completely openly, with an open invitation for anyone to particpate. I won’t name the projects yet for the simple reason that I am intending to interview the key researchers of those three projects, but haven’t approached all of them yet, and I feel it would be a little bit tacky if they were to hear about my project indirectly. So I’ll get back to the projects as soon as I have made my plans known to the persons involved.

What I want to discuss here is the pratical aspects of forming informed consent for research subjects. As I am planning on contacting who are hopefully my interviewees-to-be I have been thinking a lot about the information that I owe to them about my project.

Informed consent is a central concept to the ethics of human research, i. e. research on human subjects. Here’s what my wise friend Wikipedia says about informed consent:

“An informed consent can be said to have been given based upon a clear appreciation and understanding of the facts, implications, and consequences of an action. To give informed consent, the individual concerned must have adequate reasoning faculties and be in possession of all relevant facts.”

The concept was first introduced in the domain of medical sciences, but is equally important to research in humanities and social and behavioural sciences, that can often involve minors or deal with sensitive issues, such as domestic abuse, sexual orientations or policital views, just to name a few examples.

My research subject, which deals with people in their professional roles, is not sensitive, but because of my commitment to the principles of openness, requires thorough ethical reflection. There is practically no precedence concerning open unanonymized qualitative interview data, at least that I know of. I will get back to the challenges I have experienced when trying to find a repository for archiving and sharing my data in another blogpost. But before I can archive, let alone share, any data, I need to be sure that my research subjects understand what they are getting involved in and agree to everything that I’m doing.

In order to inform my interviewees I have drafted a project descrption, which can be found as a Google document here. The document has been approved by the University of Helsinki Ethical Review Board in the Humanities and Social and Behavioural Sciences (my second supervisor is the chair of the board, but she recused herself from the decision making in my case). I have followed the Finnish Advisory Board on Research Integrity (FABRI) ethical principles in the humanities and social and behavioural sciences in putting together the document:

Information regarding a study should include at least the following:

1) the researcher’s contact information,

2) the research topic,

3) the method of collecting data and the estimated time required,

4) the purpose for which data will be collected, how it will be archived for secondary use, and

5) the voluntary nature of participation.

Subjects may ask for additional information regarding the study and researchers should prepare for this in advance.

Assenting to be interviewed can be considered as consenting to the interview data being used for the purpose of the research project in question without any additional paperwork. Concerning the archiving and sharing of the data I have decided to ask for a written consent. The consent form I have formulated follows the example given by the Language Bank of Finland (I can’t find the model form anymore after they have updated the website, sorry for that), with some minor altercations and additions. At the moment Zenodo looks like the most likely repository for my data, but as I mentioned above, I will get back to this issue, since it has caused me a lot of headaches. Stay tuned.

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?

 

On not-research, case-studies and irony

I know, for someone doing an open research project I have been awfully quiet lately. My contract at the Open Science and Research Initiative ended on 30 April and since then I have concentrated on my dissertation. Except I haven’t.

So what have I been up to lately, instead of what I should have been up to? First of all I wrote three stories on open science and research ethics here, here and here and participated in a discussion event concerning the same topic. Then I organised a sub-event for the Nordic Open Data Week, the Open Science Lounge. After that it was time to prepare for a presentation at the Finnish symposium on Science and Technology Research, topic being again open science and research ethics. Yesterday I participated in a workshop on data management tool Tuuli and now I’m starting to work on a workshop proposal for the Mindtrek Openmind Academic Mindtrek. It actually feels like I’m doing exactly the same job as I was earlier, just not getting paid for it (I do have a grant for the research I’m not doing).

It’s not like I am reluctant on starting on my research. I dream about it. The silence of the archive (it’s literally in a bunker underground). The neat stacks of paper to leaf through. The excitement of new discoveries and ideas. There is just so much fun stuff going on that it’s hard to focus. It’s probably a positive problem because in all honesty I’m not too worried. Finland is about to close for summer, so I’ll have plenty of time to sit in my bunker during some of the sunniest and nicest days of the entire year. I also just got (in my view) the best idea for a case-study in the history of science (or lady science, as they are calling it these days #distractinglysexy): I want to pick out cases of “ultra” open research and look at them from the point of view of a few key guidelines and statements on good scientific practice. I already have one case in mind: the NMR lipids blog and Samuli Ollila has been kind enough to agree on an interview. Other possibilites: the history of Linux and the Polymath Project. I would love times three a case from the humanities, but are there any? I will be eternally grateful for ideas and leads.

I find it not so slightly ironic that I am planning on doing a study on open research and I still have no clue on how to open mine, besides babbling on this blog. Since my data deals with human subjects I am thinking that I may need to get an ethical evaluation before I publish any of it. This is something that I’m planning on delving into in a separate blog post.

When everyone is a writer, who reads?

(This is a piece I wrote a couple years ago as an exercise for a course on science communication. I thought why not throw it into the internets, instead of sitting on it forever.)

Writing is quickly taking over the place of reading as the favored pass-time of the literate. During the 19th century Finnish peasants learned how to write by copying letters from tombstones and scribbling on snow with a stick. In the 21st century social media has become the new diary and bits and pixels have replaced ink.

Are you a writer? Finland is a literature loving nation, but the odds are that the majority of people reading this will answer “no”. They are wrong.

The western societies are transitioning from the era of mass reading into the time of mass writing. Mass writing means that we write more than we read. More and more people spend ever bigger portions of their working hours writing. This doesn’t apply to just researchers, publicists or memo manufacturing public officials. Nowadays the work description that doesn’t include any e-mail correspondence or filling out forms is a rare oddity.

When we get back home from work we just keep on writing. SMS’s, Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, blogs, internet discussion forums, you name it, we write it. It’s like we are copywriters hired by ourselves, producing content about ourselves, for ourselves.

At times we are forced to stop and read a little, though. But even that we do as writers and on writing’s terms, claims Professor Deborah Brandt, from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Since writing has started to take over our brains, our reading has become fragmented. As writer-readers we are constantly on the look for ideas to be used in future writing.

According to Brandt, reading and writing are two very different processes, as far as the human brain is concerned. Writing is more practical then reading. It activates the same areas of the brain as social interaction. In addition, reading your own text is a different neurological process than reading someone else’s writing.

Brandt’s observations about the changes in the culture of literacy in the United States apply also to other western societies. She sees the shift to mass writing as a phenomenon with major societal implications. In order to grasp what those implications are it is useful to take a look at a time when the masses were still scribbling their first scrawls.

***

In today’s western societies it has become nearly impossible to function as a citizen without the ability to write. In our everyday lives we think about the act of writing about as much as breathing. Historically speaking this is a very recent occurrence.

The history of Finnish common people and the ability to write is much shorter that the history of reading in Finland, which isn’t a particularly long one either. The idea of educating common people in the art of reading was part of the Lutheran ideology from early on. The demand of general literacy was included already in the church law of 1686.

The criteria used for measuring the reading ability of the ordinary people was not very ambitious. By modern standards it wasn’t really about reading at all. Being able to memorize certain passages of the Bible and the Catechism was considered sufficient. Parents were saddled with the responsibility of teaching their progeny. Home schooling was often a case of the blind leading the blind.

The church or the society did not encourage common folk in broadening their skills towards writing, quite the contrary. Reading was reserved for Bible and therefore served a noble spiritual purpose. Writing was considered as a more worldly skill, serving government and economy. The simple folk needed protection from such possibly damaging influences.

The protection worked. About two hundred years ago only approximately one in twenty Finns knew how to write. This figure includes the gentry. According to governor’s reports from the Kuopio province in the 1860’s the percentage of common people being able to write was about 2%. The figure is likely to be similar for the rest of Finland.

In all fairness it needs to be said that also the peasant population themselves disapproved wannabe writers from their own ranks. They were seen as trying to climb up the social ladder, which was unacceptable behavior in the static class society of the time.

***

Despite the social stigma, writing was a useful skill for a 19th century peasant. If you, for example, needed an official document, but didn’t know how to write, you needed to find yourself a scribe. Getting the service from someone else was of course costly. The many languages that were in use in Finland during the time caused additional expenses. The peasants spoke Finnish and the gentry Swedish while the language of government was Russian.

In the late 19th century immigrants flowed to the North America, among them thousands of Finns. Correspondence with the emigrated relatives was difficult if you couldn’t write. Writing the letters wasn’t the only obstacle, also reading the answers proved difficult. Since few knew how to write, very few were also able to read handwriting.

The Bibles and Catechisms that were read aloud at the reading hearings organized by the church, were printed in the very decorative and therefore difficult to read Fraktur type. There have been speculations about whether this was a deliberate act of preventing commoners from gaining access to true literacy by the upper classes.

Only a handful of ambulatory school teachers taught writing. For the lack of a better teacher many peasants learned writing by themselves. They scribbled letters with a rusty nail or a piece of charcoal on some dry bark, or practiced by writing on snow with a twig. As a model they used the few written words available to them, such as tombstones. With methods like these, correct grammar, spelling and punctuation were beyond their reach.

After the basics of drawing letters as well as some more suitable equipment, such as pen and paper, were acquired, there was still the difficult task of finding a table and some light hindering hopeful peasant writers.

***

Considering all the obstacles it is no wonder that it was thought for a long time that texts by Finnish common people simply do not exist outside the small circle of late 19th century published peasant authors.

Docent Anna Kuismin from the University of Helsinki got interested in the writings of self-taught ordinary people in the early 2000’s. She started tracing them from different archives. It was a big surprise to everyone when texts starting popping up here and there. By 2012 Kuismin had a record of 400 writers born before 1880. Approximately 10 percent of them are women.

Even though the number of writers found by Kuismin is surprisingly high, population wise it is a small number. Finland had approximately two million inhabitants in 1880, majority of whom were peasants. Even if we take into consideration that many texts, were they diaries, notebooks, letters, postcards or almanacs, must have been lost and destroyed over the years, and therefore multiply the figure by, say, ten, we have to conclude that the ability to write was extremely rare among the peasant population.

The fact that the circumstances of writing were completely different from what they are today doesn’t mean that the motives were. According to Anna Kuismin the most common reasons for grabbing a pen were religious activity, nationalistic fervour, taking care of a position of trust, philosophical thinking or literary ambitions (a wish to become a published author). There was also a miscellaneous group of writers who had ended up pouring their thoughts on paper because of a specific situation in life, such as being in prison. Some inmates received teaching in letters while being incarcerated.

***

The ability to write wasn’t a means for upward social mobility in the 19th century. Deborah Brandt doesn’t believe that it will be that even now, in the midst of the breakthrough of mass writing. She sees that the social labels and stigmas of gender, ethnicity and class will always out power whatever technical skills and other knowledge capital an individual has managed to gather.

The skills or reading and writing, which are most often lumped together under the concept of literacy, affect society’s successfulness both in economic and cultural terms in a big way, even when they don’t necessarily benefit the individuals directly. Gross national product and other indicators of national affluence correlate strongly with the population’s literacy rates.

Writing is central in societies based on services, such as Finland. The economy revolves nowadays around symbols instead of concrete goods. Services are both supplied and administered through texts. Social media is a good example of the influence of writing on economy. Picture can tell a thousand words but the most influential social media outlets are based on text (services such as Instagram of Pinterest do focus on pictures, but text still has a vital role in giving the pictures meaning and context).

Finland’s road from a developing country to a PISA test champion started in 1866 with the law on public schools. The progress was slow in the beginning, but slow and steady often wins the race, as in this case. Compulsory education from 1921 on cemented the ability to write as a basic civic skill.

Finland’s situation can be compared to that of the United States, where during the early 20th century population’s literacy exceeded what was expected and needed for most working class jobs. This created a surplus of knowledge and made the labor market flexible. That flexibility made the transitioning from an industrial society into a knowledge society possible and relatively smooth.

Is there a knowledge surplus being created also today and if so, what kind?

***

Let’s go back to Deborah Brandt’s ideas about the changes ushered in by mass writing. One of them is the relationship between reading and writing being turned upside down. Gone are the days when reading was a gateway to writing.

Brandt told a story at a conference in Umeå, Sweden, in 2012, in a seminar that dealt with the writings of the common people. This is how the story went: once there was a young man, who was interested in lizards as pets. He decided to open a website about taking care of lizards.

The website became so popular that he was approached by a publishing house. They wanted him to write a book about pet lizards for them to publish. The young lizard enthusiast grabbed the opportunity. When published the book sold several thousand copies. The first time author had finally found a book he was willing to read from cover to cover. His own.

Education has difficulties in keeping up with the evolving technology as well as changes caused by technology in the social sphere. Just like the youth in the 19th century, their modern counterparts will find ways of learning the needed skills themselves, if the institutions fail them.

What worries Brandt is the union between writing and economy. The “goodness” of literary artifacts isn’t measured by the scales of moral or democracy, but instead according to the logic of profit. Economic competition and literary productivity are intertwined. This threatens to create a situation where literary goods are being consumed faster than they can be made.

According to an old saying nothing is older than yesterday’s news, but more and more the relevance of news is being measured in minutes instead of days.

Main sources:

Brandt, Deborah: Literacy in American Lives. Cambridge University Press, New York 2001.

Deborah Brandt’s and Anna Kuismin’s lectures at Vernacular literacies – Past, Present and Future –seminar at the Univeristy of Umeå 13.-15. June 2012.