In the beginning, it was the virologists, the epidemiologists and the medical doctors; they were soon followed by economists, social and educational scientists, psychologists and other disciplines which entered the field: the coronavirus pandemic is a good example which illustrates that certain research topics cannot be viewed from a single perspective alone – the interests in data are too interwoven. While the concrete research questions of the various disciplines may be entirely different, many require the same basic data. How practical it would be to upload a website, enter a few keywords and discover which studies and which data on the desired subject have already been captured across Europe, and which are in progress. This vision is on the verge of becoming reality. The European Open Science Cloud (EOSC) is to become the central research data hub in which scientists will be able to find and access available material from all disciplines.
Almost six years ago, this idea was developed by a high-ranking group of experts from the EU Commission tasked with finding solutions for the Europe-wide management of research data. A member of the team from the outset: Professor Dr. Klaus Tochtermann, Director of the ZBW – Leibniz Information Center for Economics and Professor for Digital Information Infrastructures at Kiel University. His idea of research is the concept known as “open science” – an open research culture in which free access to data is a central ingredient. “The trend is moving towards interdisciplinary questions”, says Tochtermann. Research in silos – isolated from other disciplines – is ever less capable of answering the current questions of our networked universe. The EOSC wants to tear down the barriers between the disciplines and instead connect them. The platform is the first European project to tackle this challenge; until now, similar networking models have only existed within the individual sciences.
How, though, will hundreds of different disciplines “deposit” their data in the newly created digital environment? Is it not true that data collection in the field of astrophysics follows an entirely different pattern from that of water research? “Absolutely”, confirms Klaus Tochtermann, “But it is metadata, i.e. descriptive data such as the date of sample collection, the temperature and the location, which are deposited into the search engine of the EOSC.” Those who suspect or see something interesting within these metadata can reach the original dataset through a link. If someone conducts research on the water quality in the Amazon and requires the stellar constellation above the area in order to formulate the correct question, then – this is the idea – the EOSC would be the first port of call for any research, and, in the best case scenario, the answer would be available.
This concept is based on two considerations: on the one hand, shared knowledge prevents unnecessary slowing of the research process. “With respect to corona, this means that if the data collected on the virus in Wuhan had been freely available earlier, the world would have been able to conduct research more efficiently on that basis”, clarifies Tochtermann. On the other hand, the platform supports equality within science. “Some countries and their institutions cannot afford to order expensive publications to obtain research data”, explains EOSC founding member Tochtermann. Therefore, they would be at a constant disadvantage compared to more affluent science communities. To sum up, more can be achieved together.
Who will receive credit for scientific success?
The disclosure of knowledge stood the test during the EHEC epidemic of 2011. Following the successful identification, the genetic information of the diarrhea-causing bacterium was made openly available to all; scientific discussion occurred in open forums. Collaboration generated results much quicker. Now, some researchers are concerned with the academic spotlight shining on someone else – someone whose success is based on information one has oneself discovered. “One solution would be, for example, to consider not only the frequency of citations of a publication as an assessment criterion for success, but also how often a dataset was ´cited´”, says Klaus Tochtermann. Everything considered, science is becoming more and more responsible for increasing transparency and credibility – internally as well as externally. The EOSC is therefore in the position to not only improve further research but also the critique to which it is subjected.