Editorial 3/2015

Open Up Your Data, Humanist!

Katja Fält

Humanities research has traditionally relied upon active reuse of archived data. Especially in the fields of history, archives form a fundamental part of research, and researchers in general do not shun working with archive material. Hence, humanities research and the use of archived materials tend to go hand in hand.

To a humanist, archive research has traditionally meant burying oneself beneath piles and piles of paper materials and the abundance of information they provide. But here too current developments, in which analogue archive data are being converted into digital format at an increasing rate, will affect the nature of data and research methods used. For a researcher, digitalised cultural heritage is a particularly convenient resource when it can be browsed and used even without leaving home.

Despite the tradition and cultural heritage digitalisation projects, most researchers in the humanities do not as yet embrace the idea of having their own data archived and reused. According to a survey sent by FSD to researchers in history and the health sciences, data collected by humanists typically remain in their own possession. Possible reuse, too, is mainly restricted to the researchers themselves.

Based on the survey, about half of the humanists would, however, be willing to open up their data for others to use. This outcome is fairly promising bearing in mind that in the humanities the concept of open access to data is not that well-known. The situation is changing, however. Demands for open data are bound to grow louder. Unlike in some other disciplines, humanities publications do not yet require open access as a precondition for publication, but here, too, we are likely to see more pressure in the coming years.

The humanities research tradition seems to be approaching a kind of transition phase where demands for digitalisation, openness and data availability are increasing. The winds of change may not yet be howling, but a gentle breeze can definitely be detected. Many funders, such as the Academy of Finland, contribute to the change by promoting open access policies. When applying for funding, researchers have to think about what open access to data means in real life.

Transparency has, of course, been trumpeted in the world of research for a long time, for example by promoting open publication. Open access has become a mantra that is repeated over and over again in scientific research discourse, and its benefits are recognised by many. It does, after all, add to the openness of research. But is it enough in terms of development and progress in the field? Can open science truly work if there are problems in data sharing? The triumph praising open science may remain too ambiguous or, at worst, mere talk, if open access is not tied more firmly to researchers' own reality.

Open access to data and data reuse are the cornerstones of the FSD's work. The data archive is presently extending its services to humanists and will provide answers to their specific questions regarding the deposition and reuse of data. The theme of this FSD Bulletin, "Humanist's Data Archive", honours this mission. The Bulletin presents services already available to researchers, teachers and students in the humanities. In the future, the archive hopes to extend its range of services and be even more attentive to the needs of the humanistic disciplines.

Katja Fält
Humanities Research Specialist