A champion for open science in- and outside of his domain

Published: 2021-12-01

A domain specialist in their own words is a recurring series of interviews.Gustav Nilsonne is a researcher in medicine, and associate professor of neuroscience at Karolinska Institutet. At SND, he contributes with expertise in medical data and coordinates the domain specialists. In the A domain specialist in their own words series, he talks about his dedication to the question of researchers’ incentives to sharing data, and how a heated debate led to open data memes.

—I take great interest in the openness, reproducibility, and transparency of research. Open research data may be the single most important component to enable research to be reproduced, reviewed, critically questioned, and built on, so that science can become as cumulative as we, ideally, would like it to be. 

That’s how Gustav Nilsonne responds when asked to describe his interest in questions around open science and open data. He explains that there is a breadth of data in medical research, and simultaneously a breadth of research traditions with very varying views on data sharing.

—For example, it’s common practice and accepted to share data in some molecular biology research. Geneticists, especially those who do research on non-human organisms, were early adopters and established a habit of sharing data, which still remains, he says.

There are also examples of resistance in the domain. Gustav Nilsonne recalls a debate from a few years ago, which received quite a lot of attention. Two of the editors in the New England Journal of Medicine wrote an editorial where they criticised the open data movement.

—They wrote, among other things, that they were concerned that a new category of “data parasites” would emerge, who worked entirely with other people’s data instead of collecting their own. This attracted attention and quite some criticism, especially in social media. People posted memes that could say ”If I’ve seen further it is by parasitizing on the data of others’.” (Editor’s note: The original quote is from Isaac Newton: "If I've seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants".)

On a general note, Gustav Nilsonne remarks that personal data are a challenge in regard to sharing medical data. He’d like to see more consensus on what personal data really are and the best way to share them. But that’s something that is evolving, he says, and highlights the work made in SND’s legal network under the guidance of Erica Schweder.

Gustav Nilsonne
Gustav Nilsonne. Photo: @weiwei_shoots

Chairs an EOSC group focused on incentives and meriting

Gustav Nilsonne is also involved in the international development, for example in the EU Commission’s large-scale infrastructure EOSC (European Open Science Cloud).

—For ten years, the EU Commission will be investing 490 million euro. What this money should be used for is subject to a collaboration (“co-programmed partnership”) between the EU Commission and the EOSC members. They have formed what is called EOSC Association, which stakeholders such as HEIs, researchers, funders, and infrastructures can join. The Swedish members include several HEIs, the Swedish Research Council, Formas, SUHF, and SND (through the University of Gothenburg).

In order to investigate and establish where the money should be spent, the EOSC Association has formed several Task Forces. Gustav Nilsonne was recently appointed chair (with Francesca Di Donato) of the task force Research Careers, Recognition, and Credit.

—The idea is that if you want researchers to change their behaviour and share more data, it must be made visible and rewarded. You might say that we’re working on the social aspect of how to achieve a systemic change.

Important not to fall behind in the national development

Regarding the future for open science, Gustav Nilsonne wants to raise the question of incentives for researchers. He also thinks that it’s important that researchers gain more control over work systems, processes, and channels for scientific communication and assessment. But overall, he has a bright view of the future. He thinks that he can see a change both in how research is conducted, and in how some leading international parties have changed their attitudes.

—From a national perspective, I think it’s very important to make sure that we don't fall behind. Major international stakeholders have new requirements on openness, and the HEIs have to keep up with the development. We used to talk about how difficult it is to be a forerunner, which is partially true, but now I think it’s more a matter of making sure that we don’t fall behind instead.


Here you can read previous interviews in the A domain specialist in their own words series.