Calls for open data adjudicator to combat ‘disinformation’

Stephan Lewandowsky warns that academics can ‘lose control’ of their data and see it used as ‘political propaganda’

June 2, 2017
woman smoking
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Smokescreens: there is potential for open data to be misrepresented

Independent national bodies should be set up to adjudicate on how much of the data underpinning research needs to be released to satisfy scholarly needs while preventing its being used as “disinformation”, a leading academic has said.

Stephan Lewandowsky, professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Bristol, told the World Conference on Research Integrity that “open data is highly political” and that there is a danger that some people will use scholarly information as “noise, nonsense, commercial interests or political propaganda”, to further their own interests.

“There is a difference between evidence-based science on the one hand, and political noise on the other,” he told delegates at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. It was unfortunate, he went on, that openness and transparency facilitate science but at the same time they “disproportionately also aid in the dissemination of noise and politically motivated disinformation”.

Open science meant that academics no longer had jurisdiction over their data, Professor Lewandowsky said, and people could now “cherry-pick” the bits that they wanted for their own ends.

He cited as examples the tobacco industry, which, he said, had reproduced research data after removing evidence of the negative association between smoking and health, and climate science, where universities have been “peppered” with data requests for emails between researchers and other information.

“If you make your data openly available as a researcher, you will lose control [of it],” Professor Lewandowsky said. “There are some concerns being articulated about the implications – especially in biomedical data – about letting go of them entirely and making them publicly available.”

Speaking to Times Higher Education after his presentation, Professor Lewandowsky said that “open data is terrific, but we have to be open-eyed”.

He said that one solution was to ensure that the availability of data was “enshrined or agreed upon” during the peer review process.

“In some circumstances, it doesn’t matter whether you’ve made data available, because whoever says that you haven’t will continue saying that and will always ask for more; and sometimes you can’t deliver more because it would be unethical to do that. Having that established during peer review is a good idea,” Professor Lewandowsky said.

Professor Lewandowsky added that having an independent national body that could resolve disputes around the availability of data was “crucial”.

“I think that’s something that would be doable, especially in the UK, because it’s a very well-organised and relatively small community – unlike the US, which is immense,” he said. “The research councils would be, in theory, capable of administering such a thing.”

In his keynote, Professor Lewandowsky advocated “symmetry” between the expectations of those who want information and the academics who produce it.

“I think we’re entitled to expect the same rigour, accountability and preregistration on the part of people who want our data for their own purposes as we expect of ourselves,” he told the audience. “At the moment, we don’t do that. But there’s no reason why we shouldn’t. If somebody wants my data, sure they can have my data; but why shouldn’t they preregister their analysis plan for my data in the same way I preregistered mine?”

Professor Lewandowsky told THE that applying the “same principles and scrutiny to people who want your data as you do to the people who generated them” is the “obvious solution” and would minimise loss of control of data.

“Why shouldn’t they say what they’re going to do with the data?” he asked. “In fact, you could even argue that if it’s politically sensitive, their proposed analysis…needs ethics approval.”

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Print headline: Set up national bodies to adjudicate on open data, says professor

Reader's comments (1)

There's a splendid irony in Stephan Lewandowsky calling for rigour in data handling, in view of his own incompetence in this area. In one of his papers, the ages of the participants ranged from 5 to 32757. When this was pointed out to him, at his own blog, he took no action. It was almost two years before a correction was published. Remarkably, if you download the data set now from Bristol University, these obvious errors are still there in the archived data, uncorrected. Since these numbers are obviously wrong, what confidence can a reader have that any of his other numbers are correct? It is hardly surprising that an individual of the calibre of Stephan Lewandowsky is opposed to open data.

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