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OpenCon: Early Career Researchers Pave the Way

OpenCon 2015 graphicPosted on behalf of Rachel Obbard, Assistant Professor of Engineering
Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth

Part 2 of 2 on what I learned at OpenCon 2015: Background and Open Access
(Read Part 1: Making Opportunities for Scholarship More Open: Open Access, Open Data, and Open Education)

Open Data

This is the second part of a two-part blog on the ideas I took away from OpenCon 2015. OpenCon is an annual conference where attendees work towards developing a more open system for sharing the world’s information — from scholarly and scientific research, to educational materials, to digital data.

A major topic of OpenCon 2015 in November was the difficult area of open data.

Data is open when it is publicly available and structured so that it is fully accessible and usable. In the U.S. (and in many European nations) there is a federal governmental push toward open data practices. Here, the White House Open Government Initiative has already trickled down into agency initiatives (for example, see http://www.nsf.gov/data/), grant requirements, and proposal guidelines. The deliberate structuring of data to be discoverable and usable is as important as the accessibility of the data itself. Agencies, repositories, and scientific communities are all working on developing common metadata terms so that users can more efficiently find data.  If you are hosting datasets yourself, you may be interested in a service of the Dartmouth Library to enable you to have DOIs for your datasets, an important aspect of making a dataset public and citable.  Having well-documented open data is a major path towards making it easier for you to get credit for your research, too.

Some of the challenges of Open Data include:

  • The sheer volume and increasing rate of data being produced
  • The lack of infrastructure and funding, not only for collecting, processing, and archiving data, but for maintaining those archives
  • The difficulty of data discovery across different repositories/registries, platforms, and data sets. Data discovery systems are still overly simplistic and catalog/registry-based OR very heavy weight and top-down
  • Development of data access systems is divergent in terms of infrastructure, data standards and conventions, and format
  • The long tail of data. Some data is open, managed, and usable. Even more is open but poorly managed or requiring the original authors’ assistance to use, but the vast majority is not openly accessible, not managed. It is still in individuals’ notebooks, hard drives, and thumb drives!

Practical (and sometimes required) Steps

  1. What can we do? As individual scholars, we can make a point of uploading our data to our institutional repositories, as well as to discipline-specific ones.  Most of these are members of world data centers or network data centers, umbrella bodies representing groups of data stewardship organizations with search services across multiple repositories. Figuring out which repository to use can be daunting to new researchers, but a librarian can help you.
  1. If you are applying for funding from government agencies or private foundations, you will probably be required to describe how you will make data publicly available in a data management plan. At Dartmouth, the Library, the Office of Sponsored Projects, and ITS have collaborated on implementing the Data Management Plan Tool. This is a very useful resource for those of us writing research proposals, as it provides not only data management plan formats for many agencies, but actual sample data management plans as well.
  1. Familiarize yourself with and use Creative Commons designations, so the right to use and republish your data is unambiguous and users know how to do the right thing. For guidelines see https://creativecommons.org/. To embed Creative Commons licenses directly into Word, PowerPoint, and Excel documents, see CC Word Add-in.
  1. Help spread the word. Many scholars are resistant to sharing data because of fears that they will be scooped, or that their data will be used without attribution or even misused. I can’t say this won’t happen; I’ve seen it. But chances are that the benefits to society of sharing your data will outweigh the disadvantages. You know your data far better than other people. Even with good annotation, it is difficult to use someone else’s data. If other scholars find something you missed, then you probably weren’t going to see it anyway. What’s more, they may have a way of using it that is completely orthogonal to your purpose and will generate new knowledge.
  1. Institutions and agencies can also proactively make data archiving and metadata creation easier for scientists, improve sharing and collaboration infrastructure, and provide funding for data curation.

Open Educational Resources

We all know how expensive textbooks can be! At community colleges, the books often cost students more than tuition. Many students cannot afford textbooks, or choose not to buy them, even when forgoing textbook purchases affects their learning. Student groups on some campuses (e.g., the University of British Columbia) are fighting back, pushing for open educational resources to be used wherever possible, and working with their administration, professors, and even their bookstores to make it happen.

Practical Steps

Professors can work with their subject area librarians to identify open access resources for their students, or even consider writing an open access textbook. Like open access journal publication, this is an idea waiting for proven economic models. My own informal survey at the recent American Geophysical Union conference turned up a range of responses from publishers, ranging from, “Yes! We offer this" (http://www.frontiersin.org/) to “We are waiting to see what others do” to “What is open access?”

Of course, providing open educational resources is just the beginning. What we really want is to develop communities of open practice. We want students learning to work in (and to create and contribute to) an open environment. Students need to be shown how to identify, and find value in, good open resources. Some ways for teachers to promote open practices in the classroom include:

  1. Explain and model a philosophy toward open educational resources and open access publishing
  2. Find and use Creative Commons licensed materials and license your own materials that way
  3. Try to design your class without a required textbook purchase. Use an open access textbook (I like http://www.motionmountain.net/project.html) or resources available online. Ask your subject area librarian for suggestions. See
    1. CCOER - lists of open textbooks in various fields
    2. OpenStax - publisher of open source textbooks
    3. BC Open Textbooks Project - mostly social sciences subjects
    4. OER Commons - open educational resources
  4. Use peer review and annotation as a teaching tool. Have students critique one another's work (using Canvas or social networking tools such as WordPress, Tumblr, or Blogspot) for participation grades
  5. Have students create content for Wikipedia or put their work on Wikibooks for an assignment or a final project

Wondering how to navigate the copyright waters when planning your syllabus or assigning research papers?  Ask a librarian!  Attend a copyright workshop, invite a librarian to your class to discuss this with your students, and advise on their specific projects.

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