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?



Ethical evaluation: passed

My research and hence this blog have both been on a slow-burner for a couple of months now. The reason has been that I have subjected my research plan to ethical review by the University of Helsinki Ethical Review Board in the Humanities and Social and Behavioral Sciences. I have now received a positive statement from the board, meaning that I can proceed with my research and start conducting the interviews.

Ethical review in human sciences in Finland follows a set of recommendations established by the Finnish Advisory Board on Research Integrity. In a fashion similar to the Finnish RCR guidelines, most of the Finnish research institutions have undersigned the recommendations and appointed boards or committees like the one in Uni. Helsinki. The purpose of the review is to make sure that non-medical research projects with human subjects respect certain key ethical principles in dealing with the subjects, namely

  • right of self-determination,
  • prevention of harm, and
  • privacy and data protection.

In the case of my research the review wasn’t mandatory, since it does not require physical intervention, nor does it deviate from the principle of informed consent, all of my subjects are adults, there is no exceptionally strong stimuli involved or other mental harm beyond the risks of normal life and it doesn’t create a security threat to the participants. But because I am on uncharted territory with my pursuit for openness and since research misconduct can be considered a delicate issue, my instructor Erika Löfström, who is also the chair of the ethical review board in question (she of course recused herself from the decision making), advised me to go through the process.

The statement itself is very brief, but I found the thought process involved in preparing the review request very useful. The request requires quite a few documents, such as a cover letter explaining the need for review, a research plan, researchers own evaluation of the research’s ethical aspects, handouts for the subjects, interview questions etc. One of the things it got me doing was an openness plan for my research. I realized I didn’t have a clear idea of what I was doing in terms of opening my process; how, where, which content and to which audience and end-user. I will translate the plan into English and publish it on this blog in the near future.

The statement I received reads in its entirety as follows (it has the same content in both Finnish and English):


University of Helsinki Ethical review board in humanities and social and behavioral sciences has reviewed Heidi Laines study ”Hyvää tieteellistä käytäntöä määrittelemässä: suomalainen hyvän tieteellisen käytännön ohjeistus ja muuttuva tiedeyhteisö” in the board meeting on the 3 rd – 6 th of November 2015. The review board finds that based on the received material the planned study follows the Ethical principles of research in the humanities and social and behavioral sciences issued by the Finnish Advisory Board on Research Integrity. Thus the review board states that the mentioned study is ethically acceptable.”

In addition to the standard statement I received more personalized and unofficial comments about things to take into consideration. I have translated them from Finnish here, and I presume that they don’t reflect the official view of the board in the same way as the statement proper, and should not be taken as such:

  • Reflections on research methods: 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.
  • Reflections on responsible research conduct: could interview data that is in principle harmless give rise to new sensitive information on research subjects? It is advisable that researchers try to anticipate possible challenges and consider how to handle them if they should emerge.

I will get back to my research ethical reflections and choices in coming blog posts. Especially the first point about anonymity is something that I have given a lot of thought and am still on the fence about. But I did decide on offering the choice to my research subjects (earlier I was of the opinion, that the interviews of FABR chairs and secretary generals aren’t worth doing if they are anonymous, since the historical context will make them recognizable even without names, but if there is a danger that they will decline, it’s better to have an anonymous interview than nothing at all, and just try and write the analysis in a way that doesn’t point to individuals).

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.

What is research misconduct and why it matters for open science

I have recently come across some discussion concerning the concept of research misconduct and whether withholding data falls into the category. While not sharing data when publishing research results is definitely problematic behavior in my books, I wouldn’t go as far as calling it research misconduct. I have two reasons for this opinion: firstly, withholding data does not tick the boxes of research misconduct according to the current guidelines on research integrity, and secondly, it would do no good to the open science cause to start labelling unwanted, but highly common practices, as “outlawed”.

1. Research misconduct according to responsible conduct of research (RCR) guidelines

The most influential international RCR guidelines are the Singapore Statement on Research Integrity, which is global in scope, and The European Code of Conduct on Research Integrity. The European code precedes the Singapore Statement by a hair. It was launched at the Second World Conference on Research Integrity in July 2010, the same event that gave birth to the Singapore Statement. The two documents are very much in concert, addressing same issues on different levels, the Singapore Statement being more general, while the European code goes further into detail, f. e. on how to organize the handling on misconduct in research institutions.

The Singapore Statement determines research misconduct as follows: “11. Reporting Irresponsible Research Practices: Researchers should report to the appropriate authorities any suspected research misconduct, including fabrication, falsification or plagiarism, and other irresponsible research practices that undermine the trustworthiness of research, such as carelessness, improperly listing authors, failing to report conflicting data, or the use of misleading analytical methods.

The European Code of Conduct for Research Integrity relies on the same definition of misconduct, often called the FFP categorization (fabrication, falsification, plagiarism), giving the following content to the trinity, plus creating an additional basket for the miscellaneous stuff:

Research misconduct can appear in many guises:

  • Fabrication involves making up results and recording them as if they were real;
  • Falsification involves manipulating research processes or changing or omitting data [it is added in the chapter 1.4 Good Research Practices that “Unjustified claims of authorship and ghost authorship are forms of falsification.”];
  • Plagiarism is the appropriation of other people’s material without giving proper credit [it is again added in the chapter 1.4 Good Research Practices that “An editor or reviewer who purloins ideas commits plagiarism.”];
  • Other forms of misconduct include failure to meet clear ethical and legal requirements such as misrepresentation of interests, breach of confidentiality, lack of informed consent and abuse of research subjects or materials. Misconduct also includes improper dealing with infringements, such as attempts to cover up misconduct and reprisals on whistleblowers;
  • Minor misdemeanours may not lead to formal investigations, but are just as damaging given their probable frequency, and should be corrected by teachers and mentors.

The code also tells us what research misconduct isn’t: “Research misconduct should not include honest errors or differences of opinion. Misbehaviour such as intimidation of students, misuse of funds and other behaviour that is already subject to universal legal and social penalties is unacceptable as well, but is not ‘research misconduct’ since it does not affect the integrity of the research record itself.

The Finnish guidelines, although not as well-known or influential as the ones mentioned above, are one of the oldest RCR guidelines in place, the first version being published in 1994, and therefore in my view of interest here as well, especially since they make one addition to the familiar FFP categorization of research misconduct: misappropriation. The Responsible conduct of research and procedures for handling allegations of misconduct in Finland document determines misappropriation as something that “refers to the unlawful presentation of another person’s result, idea, plan, observation or data as one’s own research.” Here the Finnish guidelines go further in safeguarding research outcomes then the (Finnish) copyright law, according to which ideas don’t have ownership and are fair game. (So, for example if you were thinking of taking my research plan and using the ideas for your own research, it wouldn’t be criminal, but still a research misconduct. Also, you would be making me disappointed. Not angry, but just very very disappointed in you.)

The Finnish guidelines have also this to say about misconduct: “Research misconduct refers to misleading the research community and often also to misleading decision-makers.” I find it as a slight shortcoming that the general public is not mentioned here together with decision-makers. Broadly reported research results can directly affect people’s life choices, (just think of the potential impact of a headline such as “Breaking: 300 g of salt-licorice a day dramatically reduces risk of cancer!” This example is a little Finland specific, I admit.) But let’s move on.

2. RCR guidelines on openness and responsible data management

None of the documents directly refers 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 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 gives a back-door to those not so keen on sharing. It could be read so, that if you have even the slightest idea that you might one day want to use your data for another research / publication, it is okay to hold on to it.

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 then 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), f. e. implementing an open access pilot and funding OpenAIRE in FP7. The 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.

Sounds almost too good to be true, doesn’t it. It is, because 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 codes 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”.

The Finnish guidelines differ from the two international ones in one important aspect, besides the obvious international-national scale difference. The Finnish document is binding to a significant proportion of the nation’s scientific community. Not legally binding, but morally, since a majority of Finnish research institutions have willingly and knowingly committed themselves to following the guidelines by undersigning the document. That is why the text is vaguish referring at points to matters of consensus, like “principles that are endorsed by the research community”, “scientific criteria” and “standards set for scientific knowledge”, without defining them explicitly in the text. This means that the guidelines can be subject to change without the necessity of rewriting them. If the common understanding on, say responsible data management, shifts among the research community, the guidelines give opportunity for a new way of reading. I think this room for interpretation is a good thing, since it creates flexibility and makes the principles dynamic, since they have to, to an extent, be discussed and evaluated at research institution level with each new misconduct investigation.

3. Why determining withholding of data as misconduct would be a bad move for open science

A commentator named David Gibbens describes the conceptual situation well in the comment thread of a blog post discussing whether data secrecy is a misconduct or not: “[…] I think it is important to distinguish between two different aspects that are being slighly (sic) blurred. One is integrity: the other is competence or quality. ‘Misconduct’ must refer to integrity; competence or quality is another matter. So in the middle category of ‘questionable research practices’ there is a big difference between sloppy statistics and ‘inappropriate research design’ (quality) and ‘lying about authorships’ (integrity).

Words can of course always be given new content. It can happen on purpose or organically. The latter has not happened, at least not yet, and I don’t think we should advocate the former either. In my view the misconduct definition should only apply for acts that have affected both a) the research record and b) the integrity of the research, as opposed to quality, just like the situation is currently.

I understand that those in favor of open science, and that includes me too, would like to see un-open practices condemned and discouraged. For that we need arguments and tools, the stronger and sharper the better. But broadening the scope of research misconduct would only make it weaker as a tool. I am not an expert on law, but I have understood that it is generally not recommended to put in place laws that would be widely broken and therefore not efficiently enforced. Laws like that make the number of criminals rise instead of increasing order, and in the process lessen the authority of other laws as well, even the entire legal system. I think the analogy is valid even though research integrity is in most places a matter of research community’s self-regulation rather than a legal issue.

Then there is the carrot or the stick point of view to the matter: should researchers be forced or encouraged into data sharing. I tend to always be in favor of the carrot, whatever the situation, since I think it produces better results with more longevity. The research environment should support and reward sharing, which is currently not the case. By calling withholding data a research misconduct we would be simply blaming individuals for the shortcomings of the system. The situation is more aggravating if a researcher has promised to share data and then fails to do so, but the RCR guidelines offer plenty of categories other than misconduct for that kind of behavior.

The case against the journal article

It seems that the academic article is currently more part of the problem than the solution for the scientific community. The race for the biggest impact and the so called “publish or perish” mentality are responsible for many ethically dubious practices, such as dissecting research results in order to produce the maximum number of articles, inflating lists of referenced articles and co-authors to boost impact factors, and data jealousy (as in even though I don’t have any use for this data any more, I sure as hell am not publishing it to benefit my competitors). Even though these practices can’t be cataloged under scientific misconduct or fraud, they give science a bad name and jeopardize the quality of published research.

I am relatively new to the research-making scene, so I get to ask basic questions, such as why on earth do we rely on these journals and their articles, hogging money from taxpayers, copyrights from researchers, creating distorted incentives? Does the system serve some function that could not be met by any other means? Let’s see.

Function 1: Dissemination of scientific knowledge
Have you heard of the internet? Let’s go and disseminate there (or here) all day long. Of course there is a possibility of younger, not yet established, researchers losing their voice into the noise, but I don’t think it’s much different in the current situation. There are only so many articles Science and Nature can publish. The challenge of being heard is one that can be overcome by putting more effort into teaching undergraduate and graduate students science communication skills.

Function 2: Discussing science among peers
I think the journal article fails miserably in this respect, both in speed and inclusiveness. Publishing an article takes ages, publishing a comeback article takes equally long. The amount of people who can play this ping-pong are limited, even if one of the articles has 5000 co-authors. There is loads of academic discussion going on in Twitter, ResearchGate, blogs… Anyone can participate and it’s in real-time. A comment posted on a blog isn’t as thorough as an article, but consider an entire discussion: it can sometimes hold enough novel ideas for a dozen articles. The peer-review gets taken care of on the side, since the discussants are (possible trolls and other beside the point comments aside) peers reviewing each others contributions. The original Polymath Project is a powerful example of this. (Disclaimer: As a historian by origin I love the monograph, longue durée and histoire totale. I’m all for doing things that require time, thoroughness and narrative. Real-time scientific discussion and taking-your-time research shouldn’t be mutually exclusive.)

Function 3: Maintaining the quality of scientific research through peer review
Journals are not doing too good of a job here either. Think for example of the Michael LaCours case, or Diederik Stapel, father of 60 retracted articles, both of whom published in eminent journals. Another example: an author was asked to add male co-authors in order to “not drift into ideologically based assumptions”. One response to the challenge came last week when an American body called the Transparency and Openness Promotion Committee published their guidelines for journals in Science. Their motivation was to “move scientific communication toward greater openness”. To me, the guidelines are fine, in principle, encouraging journals to demand stronger proof of reproducibility and more data transparency from published-to-be research. The problem is that they lack any mention of open peer review, open source, open data or open access. The article states that “the journal article is central to the research communication process.”, without giving any arguments to back the claim up. Is it really such a law of nature? To me a far better solution than the above mentioned guidelines would be an open peer review, along the lines of Open Science Peer Review Oath. Instead of journals the review process could be handled by, say, the numerous learned societies, such as science academies and scientific associations (they would need more resources, but when the journals stop bleeding research funders there will be more cake left for everyone).

Function 4: Helping to calculate the impact factor and so determine academic merit
I wonder how anyone in the non-academic world ever gets recruited or funded. I mean they don’t have the impact factor! How can they evaluate the successfulness of a person/business/endeavor without journal-based metrics? Oh, they evaluate each case individually and qualitatively, looking for example at persons CV, the things they have accomplished, talking to them in order to find about their personality, their competences, etc.? I mean who does the impact factor really serve, the government, the accountants? Not science, that’s for sure. If the government can cut funding without first checking the impact factor or Publication Forum classification, they should be capable of doing the opposite as well.

It’s starting to feel like an emperor without clothes type of situation and I’m going to call it if no one else will: Open Access publishing is a transition period solution. The journal article (at least as we know it) will become a thing of the past, and rather sooner than later. It will be replaced by article style narrative reports, blogs, wikis, video and audio recordings, conference papers and presentations, documentary films, whatever. This might sound like uncontrollable chaos and it probably is. But why try to heard cats, when you can watch them on a cute viral video? We are already finding our daily dose of information via peers, social media, traditional media, random googling and whatnot. The age of authorities like the aforementioned Nature and Science is going, going, gone. We just have to live with it. I think we’ll manage fine. (Second disclaimer: I too am planning on writing and publishing articles. I have to do that in order to have my dissertation formally approved.)

BTW, the Open Knowledge Foundation Finland Open Science Working Group (jeez, we need a catchier name) is planning on a workshop proposal for the Academic Mindtrek Conference about this issue (Publication Forum classification level 1!).

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.

Research integrity in the open era

Open science has emerged on the global research agenda so quickly, that the research integrity guidelines haven’t been able to keep up to speed. Many of the principles are of course so general, that they apply to all fields and types of research. But there are many practical issues that need to be addressed. Below are a few of my thoughts on them. Many of the ideas came to me when listening the presentations at this years Ethics day in Helsinki a few weeks ago, organized jointly by the Finnish ethical advisory boards.

  • How to recognise and deal with predatory journals and open washing
    Some of the predatory journals are so blatantly obvious that there is no chance of mistaking them for the real deal, but then there are more professional seeming ones. Especially younger researchers might struggle to make the difference and the publish or perish mentality might push some to be less critical. In many Finnish universities dissertations need a certain number of published articles in order to pass, with very little regard given to the quality of the journal. I don’t think there is yet any guidelines in place against publishing in a predatory journal. Of course if you are planning to pursue an academic career publishing in a lousy journal will come back to bite you, but what if all you want is to get the degree?
    Open washing and it’s different manifestations (I’m not sure if predatory journals fall into this category, but I think they are at least related) are still somewhat unfamiliar to me, but as there starts to move more and more funding around open science this type of phenomena is bound to increase. I presume that one antidote could be more awareness and discussion about open licenses.
  • How to give credit to contributors in an open research process (for example when blogging about an ongoing research and getting advice and ideas in comments)
    Samuli Ollila, about whom I blogged earlier here, has decided to give co-authorship to anyone who a) comments on his blog and b) feels himself/herself having contributed significantly enough to deserve a mention in the list of authors. In this case the number of commentators is reasonable (around fifteen, I think), but what if the number rises to, say, hundreds?
  • What if openly published research / data needs to be retracted?
    We all know internet is reluctant to forget, so how should it be done?
  • Dual use research: at what stage does the ethical evaluation step in?
    Researchers aren’t often aware of dual use possibilities in their own research so they don’t always understand the need to seek ethical pre-evaluation.
  • How to handle negative and aggressive discussions and reactions that a politically charged research could give rise to during an open research process?
    It is crazy what kind of things arouse net rage. The Finnish examples from the above mentioned Ethics day were for example the cultural history of the word “neekeri” (use Google translate if you don’t get it), the history of Finland in the II World War and the wolf population in Finland. The research community should more actively show loyalty when colleagues are under attack on online forums, media, etc. The case of the political cartoonists is an analogous one.
  • Open science as one answer to the problem of publication bias
    Open science can actually be an answer to some previous problems regarding the integrity of research. The need to also publish negative results is well recognized and part of the ideology of openness. I wonder if it could be argued that openness is actually a prerequisite for good and ethical science? The Finnish National Advisory Board on Research Ethics states in it’s guidelines that a researcher should act according to the principle of openness, which is part of the nature of scientific endeavor, as well as to the principle of responsible science communication when publishing research outcomes (”toteuttaa tieteellisen tiedon luonteeseen kuuluvaa avoimuutta ja vastuullista tiedeviestintää tutkimuksen tuloksia julkaistessaan”).

Science on Blogspot

The Open Science and Research initiative, which I work for, held a seminar today. The most inspiring part of the program was a panel, which discussed how researchers could be engaged into opening their work and what kind of skills and support they need in order to do that. One of the speakers was Samuli Ollila who conducts an ultra open research project on, out of all the possible platforms, Blogspot (WordPress’ auto-correct just suggested “bloodspot”). I guess Blogspot is just as good a medium as any, I just personally associate it with lifestyle blogs and such. I for one wrote a pastry blog on Blogspot for about a year (I’m NOT going to link it here, that’s where I draw the line with openness). Samuli’s blog is titled “Matching lipid force fields with NMR data“, and quoting that is all I’m going to say about it’s content, which is way off my field of expertise and understanding.

The way Samuli’s project works is that anyone can contribute via commenting. When the research is published all of those who have given their input in the comments will be listed as co-authors. There are risks to this kind of approach, mainly whether journals will accept the article, since all of the results have already been openly reported on the blog. It will be an important precedent, what ever the end-result will be. When I talked to Samuli after the seminar he didn’t seem too stressed though. His view was that new results will always be recognised, one way or the other. He presented some pretty radical views about academic publishing in the panel discussion. According to him the scientific community should move past publishing and just focus on producing knowledge. To me that sound at the same time logical, considering the long-term goals of the open science movement, and pure madness. No articles? But how will you know that your work is done (or done enough), if not by finishing an article? How will you be able to experience that cathartic feeling you get after pressing the “send” button two minutes before the deadline? So in order to get there it wouldn’t suffice to just get rid of Elsevier and co., we’d also need to get rid of a deep rooted mindset and a way of organising scientific work, especially in the humanities. Opening publishings and data is to many radical enough, so burying the article as a format must sound practically blasphemous.

I opened up to Samuli and some other members of the panel, who had gathered for drinks after the event, about how frightening opening one’s research can feel in the beginning. I told them my fear of being ridiculed and critiqued, to which they very wisely pointed out that that it is actually one of the many benefits of open research process. Yes, being ridiculed early on in a research process can be a good thing when it means that you find the faults in your work at a stage when correcting them is easy, vs. right before popping the champagne to celebrate your doctoral thesis being finished. One of the panelists had experience (not personal) of the latter happening. So now, after hearing that story, I think I will be more scared if I end up getting no critical comments at all…

Openness is scary

I published my research plan along with my CV yesterday on this blog (here). I downloaded the document in PDF format to Google Drive and shared the link. It was scary.

Even though I am currently working for a governmental initiative designed to increase openness in science (Open Science and Research Initiative) I don’ t have a crystal clear idea on how to go about conducting an open research process. But that’s what I’m determined to do, so I guess I will just have to invent as I go along, at least until I come across with others doing the same thing (I already know some in the fields of natural science and digital humanities, but none in social sciences, studying a contemporary subject). One of the things that I will have to decide as my research progresses is how much of my data will I open and to what degree. There will probably be at least something left unopened, since an important part of my data will be transcripts of interviews, and I will have to respect the wishes of my interviewees. One of the first things I’m going to do as I start my research full-on in May, is a research data management plan.

What is so scary about this, then, telling in a blog about what you do? That should be normal in research, right? Well, there is public and then there is open. Your stuff is public when someone can see it. It becomes open only when anyone can see it, and not only see, but also use it. And that is scary. First of all, someone could steal my text or my ideas. I don’t think that is very likely, though. My research has absolutely no commercial potential, and if someone should plagiarize my text they would get caught quite quickly, because the subject is so specific. And you can be plagiarized even if you don’t do open research. Actually the openness might save you from plagiarism. There would be no contest about who came up with the idea first or who’s text it was originally, since after publishing it openly I would very easily prove it was me. The second fear is much scarier and, I think, more real; that of being ridiculed, even harassed and / or having my work and even my person heavily and possibly unjustly criticized. But I think that genuine and consistent openness and honesty can be a remedy to that too. I guess I will just have to wait and see.