Data protection poses a challenge to open data in human and health sciences
According to the Declaration for Open Science and Research, “Research data and methods are as open as possible and as closed as necessary.” Within the multidisciplinary scientific community of the University of Eastern Finland, open access to research data and methods is progressing at different rates on a field-specific basis.
“In natural sciences, open sharing of research data and methods is relatively easy. For example, climate data is being shared globally, but as soon as we are dealing with personal data in research, we start to face some small challenges,” Rosti explains.
The European Data Strategy includes the so-called FAIR principles, which are intended to make data findable, accessible, interoperable and re-usable. According to Muhonen, the FAIR principles support open science in natural sciences, but things get more complicated in human and health sciences. In those fields, personal data and identifiers often need to be taken into account, and the EU's General Data Protection Regulation sets strict rules on the use of personal data. This means plenty of work for information specialists and legal experts working in universities.
“Data can be almost anything. For example, water samples, medical samples and survey results are data. Which of them can be shared with others is a thing to consider. It makes sense to start the opening of data from where it is possible. All in all, it's a huge field,” Muhonen says.
Data management should be taken into account already when planning research
The opening of data may create an illusion that all research data can be googled in the spirit of open science.
“When a set of data is opened, it is not necessarily freely available to everyone, but may require a research permit for its use. Even open data may be contained within closed doors for reasons such as data protection,” Rosti says, correcting false assumptions.
Open data does not mean easier use: people capable of using such data are still needed. Open data must be accompanied by sufficient documentation so that the data set can be understood also by others than the researcher who created it. This is why researchers should take data and quality management into account already when planning their research.
“Researchers must think about what kind of data are needed, when they should be collected, and what happens to them after the study is completed. This is a significant change in how scientific research is conducted,” Muhonen says.
Who owns open data?
Research data also lead to questions about ownership: whether a data set is owned by a researcher, or to what extent and when the ownership is transferred to their employer. Here, too, legal aspects are strongly linked to open science.
Researchers are interested in the right of priority to data, but no one is really interested in data that everyone's already used. If, on the other hand, a study is conducted in collaboration with a company, the company will also obtain the right of priority to the data produced. Yet, even doctoral dissertations authored in collaboration with companies are, as a rule, public.
“Finnish legislation demands that academic theses be publicly available. However, company-specific information may be partly classified,” Rosti explains.
With regard to open access publishing of studies conducted in collaboration with companies, Rosti returns to the funding of open science: how could companies be involved in the funding of open science when, at the moment, the costs are mainly covered by research organisations?
“This requires a change of thinking and discussion with the business community.”
Openness as a fundamental value of science
While recognising the challenges of open science, its benefits are widely acknowledged: open science significantly contributes to the transparency of science and scientific research, as well as to the availability and impact of research findings in society. It boosts innovation and also helps to develop critical thinking and science literacy throughout society.
The vision of the Declaration for Open Science and Research 2020–2025 is for open science and research to be integrated in researchers’ everyday work. Indeed, openness is seen as a fundamental value of science.
“Open science must be a natural part of university research and education right from the beginning of studies. It must be internalised as a principle of operation, and not as something superficial that is remembered if and when convenient,” Ari Muhonen says.