Àlex López: "The future of science involves scientists sharing their research data"
30/10/2017
Rubén Permuy
Research centres have to highlight the value of their research data

What’s your academic background?

Before joining the UOC, I was doing a PhD in chemistry at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona and a great deal of the thesis required extensive use of databases. This led me to study scientific journals related to chemistry and to patents, and made me want to know much more about the world of information systems. I did a Bachelor's Degree in Information Science at the UOC and from then on my work began to centre on this discipline. I’ve been in the UOC's Faculty of Information and Communication Sciences for 10 years now. At the same time, I've also specialized in open access and open science, the main lines for my research.

What’s your field of research at the UOC?

At universities, our academic research generates scientific knowledge. Looking at the world of science as an organization, my role is to analyse how this knowledge is shared; not just among the wider public – in what is known as science communication or outreach – but above all among scientists. What are the vehicles, tools and systems they can use to share their knowledge? At present a lot of it relates to scientific journals. Although they’ve existed for hundreds of years, we still haven’t found a better way of disseminating scientific knowledge among scientists. And even though we have social media, blogs, videos, and so on, journals continue to be the main channel. But it’s a dynamic channel. For example, we have journals on data, and in this area there are many aspects that are changing. What I do is I see how these tools can be used from an open access and open science approach, but also how they can be more effective for assessment, for improving aspects such as peer review, because there are quite a lot of criticisms of the everyday workings in areas such as these.

Should research publications be adapted to open access?

Research publications have to adapt to new ways in which knowledge is shared. We can see data as an example of a new vehicle. There are now journals that simply contain data sets, as these are a very valuable resource when carrying out research. And then there are also journals that are starting to include the world of multimedia and audiovisual content, creating video summaries and all sorts of content that used to be considered ancillary, but can now even have the same value as the research articles. In recent years the internet has pushed the boundaries of what is possible in the world of audiovisuals. If we think back to cases like Napster or Megaupload, we can see how industries experienced changes in the way people accessed content, and platforms such as Spotify began to grow. In the world of scientific research, from the point of view of illegality, platforms such as Science Hub are shaking up the system used to disseminate knowledge. We will see a change of paradigm in the next few years. Neither 140 nor 280 characters are enough to disseminate knowledge and its conclusions on Twitter. However, as scientists we will need to have some kind of platform that enables us to exchange knowledge that can be validated and revised, and that in the end helps to continue creating new knowledge.

And what happens with the major scientific publications that are reluctant to change to open access?

At first the big record labels were quite unwilling to move with the times, but soon enough they realized that either they created their own platforms or they'd be swallowed by the new tide. Of course it's very different in a traditional system with a strong degree of inertia, but it's clear that scientific research policies are helping a lot. When some laws ‒ such as that of the United States in the National Institutes of Health or the Spanish Science Law ‒ pave the way, it defines how scientists will behave. This change is also being made at EU level with Open Science, and while it may take more or less time, it's irreversible. It can take longer in some science disciplines, but in fields such as biomedicine they are clearly defining the evolution of this new way of understanding and disseminating scientific knowledge.

Among the research projects in which you’ve participated, you’ve worked with the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), a leading centre at a world level.

At KIMO, colleagues such as Agustí Canals, Eva Ortoll and myself have been studying CERN as the paradigm of a different way for scientists to cooperate. This is big science, big centres with thousands of scientists working towards a single goal – a reality that shows us a specific way of doing science. We have been studying how CERN was not only the creator of the worldwide web, but also of repositories where all their data could be accessed by other scientists. This CERN knowledge has led us to study how the main research centres are capable of managing this data. The first thing was to get people interested and involved, and now we're analysing how to share this knowledge and data openly. But we also have to analyse the reuse value and the economic value for other centres, and look at who is using them. Because the main reason for sharing data is for them to be reused. In the same way you want an article to be cited, you want the data to be reused, cited and for it to be of value to the scientific community. Knowing about a leading institution like CERN has helped us analyse the way in which the Catalan scientific system is promoting the sharing of its data.

And isn't the privacy of certain data a cause for concern?

Data that relate to people involve aspects of ethics, morality and also legality, meaning that scientists have to be very careful with their storage and protection. This can be a challenge in fields such as genomics, but also in social sciences, where there are interviews and surveys. In the same way that electoral rolls and other data must have certain levels of privacy, this also applies for science and the data we generate. When we generate data sets, for example when researching diseases or war zones, it has to be very difficult to identify the people involved. All types of privacy are important, and it's also essential that it's impossible to identify large groups of people that fulfil certain characteristics. Cryptography is one solution for a group or individual identity, but it's also crucial to think about how you store the data. It’s a challenge for universities, because in the past this data wasn't shown. But when your projects oblige you to show this data, you have to be very careful about how you do so. But scientists aren't out there on their own. They have instructions from their funders, the systems of their universities, libraries, etc, helping them create data management plans for their projects. In this new paradigm there are some areas that require change, but scientists aren't alone in this challenge.

Could you recommend a book on open science?

"Opening Science. The Evolving Guide on How the Internet is Changing Research, Collaboration and Scholarly Publishing", published by Springer, which is open access. It has a varied range of contributions that reflect from the point of view of open science but explore many aspects, such as collaboration, alternative metrics, new types of journals, data sets in open access, and more. All of this is part of the new paradigm. It's a book that provides a very complete view of the changes that are coming.