Perspectives on FAIR open research data


The Swedish National Data Service (SND) had meetings and workshops in Gothenburg in November 2017 on the topic of FAIR (findable, accessible, interoperable & reusable) access to reasearch data. Find a summary of Day 1 & 2 here.  The third day was aimed at researchers, and the issues on the table were ones that are highly relevant to the scientific world, and have been much discussed elsewhere as well.

As many people probably know, research funders such as the EU have begun demanding Data Management Plans (DMP) as a part of grant applications or to receiving grant funding. The Swedish government has also set the target that all research data should – as far as possible – be made openly available within the next ten years.

With funders and governments actively working toward making research data FAIR, engaging with the open data process will eventually be required of all researchers. But the decision to champion open data has been made with the best interest of researchers and the public both in mind.

The advantages of making research data FAIR are obvious, and include:

  • Making it possible to reuse data in new studies
  • Making it possible to verify earlier research
  • Saves duplication of effort when data required has already been gathered and made accessible
  • Makes meta analyses and similar research easier to undertake and the subsequent results more robust
  • Makes data accessible for tax payers and other organisations who fund the research

The Swedish government’s proposition 2016/17:50 Kunskap i samverkan – för samhällets utmaningar och stärkt konkurrenskraft p. 107 (Swedish, pdf) also highlights the following:

Open access to research results contribute to maintaining and supporting high quality research. When results rapidly become available, research can progress more quickly by allowing more researchers to validate them and continue building on previous results. Research and development doesn’t only take place at higher education institutions, but also within industry, in small and middle sized companies, and in the public sector. By actively disseminating research results and making them openly accessible these stakeholders get to share in new breakthroughs in research sooner, which can contribute to new innovations, better ability to compete on the market, and a stronger public sector.

You could also ask – why not make research data openly accessible in a FAIR way, as it seems like it would have a positive impact on research in general?

A number of obstacles were mentioned both at the SND days and in other sources:

  • Practical issues – how to store data that can be counted in terabytes or even petabytes?
  • Lack of time – to describe data so that it can be reused by others is very time consuming
  • Confidentiality and personal information – open access sometimes collides with data protection acts such as the upcoming General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR)
  • Discomfort – putting data out there might make researchers feel worried that it might be misused, or that other researchers might take advantage of it before the work of collecting and processing the data pays off

Naturally, there are many different ways in which to overcome these obstacles. SND is now getting funding from the Swedish Research Council to work with higher education institutions and improve the Swedish research infrastructure, which will be a huge help when it comes to practical storage issues. SND is also one of many organisations that can give help and advice for how to write a DMP and make data processing as easy as possible. As a part of this SND work, higher education institutions like Borås University will have local expert groups (Data Access Units, DAU) available to help researchers. As with everything else the process of making data FAIR will probably go easier and quicker if done a little at a time from the start rather than as one big project to be sorted out after the fact.

When it comes to the risk of losing something by making research data openly accessible experts like Gustav Nilsonne (Karolinska Institutet and Stockholm University) claim that this has not happened to date. If your data is available and is used by someone who publishes what you feel are dubious results there are academic channels through which you can contest those results – and then Nilsonne says that it is better to simply have made the data accessible rather than collaborated with someone who publishes sub-par work. And if some other researcher or research group should find results in your own data that you weren’t even aware of – well, isn’t that how research is supposed to work?

Last but not least, FAIR research data might be something that can help with the reproductibility crisis that many researchers think today’s science is facing. If the data supporting a research result is missing or unusable that means there’s no way to validate results that are being questioned.

As many participants at the SND days said: you shouldn’t have to reinvent the wheel with your research. So saving, standardizing and making data accessible might be seen like assembling a bicycle rather than leaving all of the parts of the bike lying around in a locked shed. Sure, it takes more work – but in the end the result is so much more useful!

Text: Signe Wulund

For more information about open access to research data at the University of Borås, see the Library’s Research Data web pages.

Sources (external links)

Biblioteken vid Lunds universitet: Varför öppna data? (Swedish)
Gustav Nilsonne: Öppna, slutna och dolda data (Swedish, lecture)
Gustav Nilsonne: Diskussion om behovet av öppen data (Swedish, lecture)
Nature 533, 452-454 (26 May 2016): 1,5000 scientists lift the lid on reproducibility
Regeringens proposition 2016/17:60: Kunskap i samverkan – för samhällets utmaningar och stärkt konkurrenskraft (Swedish, pdf)
SND: Samarbeten ska ge individdata av hög kvalitet (Swedish)