Category Archives: Harri Siiskonen

Illusion of openly accessible research data

For UEF’s researchers, teachers and students, access to massive electronic publication archives is something that can be taken for granted, and the growing popularity of open access publishing adds to the amount of research data available. However, information is not free just because it is available electronically.  A lion’s share of the UEF Library’s budget for acquiring new information resources is spent on electronic publications.

As members of the academic community, it’s easy for us to get fooled by an illusion of freely available research data, as it is always just a few clicks away through our library.  Unfortunately, however, this kind of access to information is limited to the university network and the walls of our library. Of course, it is possible for people outside the university to gain similar access to research data by purchasing individual articles or e-books directly from publishers and to view these on their own computers. However, not many who need information can afford this, and the materials available freely online aren’t often enough for those looking for in-depth research data.

Despite the increasing popularity of open access publishing, the exponential growth of electronic resources has increased the proportional inequality between people needing information. At the global scale, this inequality is even more tangible. In developing countries, researchers seldom have access to publication archives like the ones we’re used to in Western countries. I have noticed that visiting researchers from Africa in particular have been excited about the opportunity to use our electronic collections.  Membership in an academic community has become a major divisive factor between people needing access to information.

When looked at by title, the number of electronic publications and e-books acquired by UEF is large. However, due to the way these publication packages are composed, they also contain plenty of material that is irrelevant to our research focus.  Moreover, they also lack some sets of publications that are crucial for us. There is a clear need to step up investments in the acquisition of electronic publications in the field of human sciences, and we can’t ignore the need for traditional printed journals, either. For human sciences, publication archives constitute an infrastructure similar to those of hard sciences. The range of publication forums in human sciences is considerably broader than in hard sciences, and this makes it difficult to include all relevant channels in the publication packages purchased.

Open science and open access publishing will not reduce the need to purchase access to electronic publication archives in the near future. This is a vicious cycle: we need to pay to maintain access to scientific publications – the alternative would be to be stuck behind a pay wall. There’s no such thing as a free lunch – and that’s a fact we need to keep in mind.

Harri Siiskonen

Big data changes the ways of producing information in human sciences

Commerce, search engines, social media and other actors of the digital world meticulously record in their databases the purchases we make and the websites we visit. Already now, they know a lot about us and our preferences, and would be more than happy to include register data on us in their databases, if only legislation allowed. For these actors, the management of large data sets and their systematic analysis is an everyday activity, and a seemingly productive one as well.

In scientific research, natural sciences and medical sciences have long-term experience in the management of large data sets. In human sciences, linguistics has been a pioneer in Finland through the national FIN-CLARIN consortium, which constitutes part of the European CLARIN network. The attitudes in human sciences towards data resources known as big data haven’t been unreservedly positive. The new way of producing information with its computational models and artificial intelligence, as required by big data processing, has even been regarded as a threat to hermeneutic research. On the other hand, advocates of big data have highlighted the opportunities it offers in the analysis of large data sets by using the above mentioned methods.

Within human sciences, there is an agreement on the fact that the amount of big data is growing exponentially in tandem with the digitalisation of our society and the digitisation of previously created, historical materials. The usability of these data sets, on the other hand, is promoted by investments in open science, multiplying the number of potential users. Big data can’t be ignored or hushed away in human sciences either, as evidenced by the appearance of theme issues in the field’s journals and the emergence of publication series devoted to big data, for example Big Data & Society from 2014 onwards. Semi Purhonen and Arho Toikka provided an excellent analysis of the significance of big data for research in social sciences in an article published in Sosiologia (1/2016). According to them, new methods allowing the use of large data sets and the change in the ratio between quantitative and qualitative methods are revolutionary. Computational methods enhance transparency and repeatability in the analysis of text materials. After presenting this view, a radical one in the context of human sciences, the authors note that the new computational methods do not undermine the significance of context-related understanding and substance-related expertise.

The fact that mastery of the computational methods is not included in the basic methodological tool kit of social scientists – or humanists for that matter – is largely overlooked in the discussion relating to digital humanism and big data. In order to mine relevant and in-depth information from big data, the researcher must be well versed in the phenomenon and its contextualisation, and the researcher also needs to have expertise in data collection and data analysis pertaining to large data sets. When presented to an individual researcher, the challenge seems and is too great to overcome. In-depth mastery and analysis of big data in social sciences calls for multidisciplinary collaboration involving at least computer science and statistics.  Big data challenges the paradigms relating to the production of scientific information in human sciences, and also calls for our educational system to renew itself. The utilisation of exponentially growing data sets must not remain the privilege of the few, but needs to be harnessed to serve the development of society at large.

harri_siiskonenHarri Siiskonen

At the interface between universities and companies

Nordic universities were very successful in the recently published Times Higher Education European University Top 200 Rankings, as six Finnish universities made the cut, UEF among them. This is a clear indication of the high quality of Finnish education and research, as well as of the functionality of the system. By developing research, this performance can be further enhanced. When it comes to doing research, Finnish universities are getting more and more dependent on external funding every year. Another new trend is the fact that research funders increasingly push universities to collaborate with companies and different organisations in order to put research into practice without delay.

In natural sciences, health sciences and engineering sciences, university-business collaboration has long traditions, but in human sciences, this kind of cooperation has been more random. Collaboration with organisations making use of research findings is a requirement in calls of the Strategic Research Council of the Academy of Finland and in Horizon2020 projects, not to mention in funding offered by the EU’s Structural Funds or Tekes. A key challenge for the Finnish universities – and for human sciences in particular – is to establish links to organisations and especially to companies that utilise research findings. So, how to bring together those who need research data, and those who generate it?

Before answering the question, I’ll explain how things are done at KU Leuven in Belgium, a university that has succeeded very well in research funding calls of the European Commission. Saija Miina, the Research Coordinator of our faculty, was recently introduced to the funding models of five universities in the Flanders area. There, universities are given basic public funding and a significant share of national funding for research on the basis of indicators measuring the performance of their research and innovation activities, and there is no separate competition for funding like we have through the Academy of Finland. The internal distribution of research funding at the universities is based on competition between different research groups. At KU Leuven, internal research funding decisions involve the recipient’s commitment to apply for funding from the instruments of the European Commission, or at least to collaborate with companies and other organisations. For creating networks and making research available to the “markets”, KU Leuven has hired persons with such titles as Industrial Manager and Knowledge Breaker to lower the threshold of researchers to engage in dialogue with companies. The funding model of KU Leuven puts a pressure on researchers to seek cooperation with key stakeholders. Two thirds of Leuven professors collaborate with companies or other organisations, irrespective of their discipline.

As we are competing for the same funds of the European Commission, we need to observe our competitors, adopt best practices and brainstorm for new ways of doing things. At UEF, university-business cooperation has been systematically strengthened since late 2014, following the appointment of Anssi Lehikoinen to a Professor of Practice position. We’ve already seen visible results, and creating increasingly extensive cooperation is the aim of the Commercialisation Solutions project launched late last year, which seeks to create a new model and an incentive system for the commercialisation of research. With an open and broad mind, the interface between universities and companies is fertile ground for creating new ideas on how to develop research and how to apply research findings.

Harri Siiskonen

Nordic networks support cooperation in China and Africa

The world university rankings published this summer were a pleasant read for the University of Eastern Finland.  Besides the performance of individual universities, it was interesting to look at the geographic distribution of the top 500 universities in the Shanghai ranking. It was no surprise that American and Western European universities did well, or that Chinese universities have been showing a strong performance in the past decade. The Shanghai ranking also included four universities from the Republic of South Africa but only two from Russia.

In the university world, networking has become an increasingly important tool in the growing competition for research resources and the best researchers. UEF has successful partners in all corners of the world. In China and southern Africa, we are also supported by an extensive Nordic university network. But have we fully tapped into the opportunities available through the Nordic networks? The Nordic Centre set up in conjunction with Fudan University, which was placed 151–200 in the Shanghai ranking, has served as a bridge connecting the Nordic universities and Fudan University, and businesses based in the Shanghai area. Celebrating its 20th anniversary in late October, the Nordic Centre currently comprises 25 Nordic universities.

A similar network, called SANORD (Southern African-Nordic Centre), has been established to bolster cooperation with southern African countries. This differs from its Chinese counterpart in that its membership consists of 25 leading universities from southern African countries, including the University of Cape Town, placed in the 201-300 bracket in the Shanghai ranking. Although not all African members of the network are yet able to reach the level of their Nordic partners, they are very eager to improve their higher education system, which creates demand for education export. Nordic SANORD members are by and large the same high-ranking universities that are part of the Nordic Centre.

Both the Nordic Centre and SANORD are fairly well known among researchers. However, the services offered by these networks could be utilised more efficiently. In addition to building bilateral relations with China and Africa, we should consider strengthening our cooperation with our Nordic partners. When seeking major international funding providers, or when planning extensive cooperation with the Chinese partners, a Nordic university consortium would be much more powerful and able to offer more skills and competences than any individual university. Based on my personal experience of the Nordic Centre’s operations, I would say we Finns have much to learn from the cooperation between the Swedish and the Danish in the Chinese projects. Active involvement in the Nordic Centre and SANORD allows us to forge stronger ties with our African, Chinese and Nordic partners.  Hopefully we will find ways of linking businesses to this competence network, too. Some promising developments are already under way in China.

harri_siiskonenHarri Siiskonen

Challenge of parallel publishing

“Publish or perish,” as the old academic saying goes. The saying has many sides to it, depending on whether it is looked at from the viewpoint of an individual or an institution. Back in the day when university positions were public offices rather than employment relationships, professorships were filled almost exclusively on the basis of the applicant’s scientific merits – assessed by publishing activities. Even today, the extent and quality of the applicant’s publishing activities continue to be major factors affecting the evaluation; however, also other factors have gained importance. From the viewpoint of the university, the old system looked at publishing activities as just one, rather loosely defined entity in the ministry’s funding model, whereas in today’s funding model, publishing activities are defined very rigorously and given significant weight in the earning logic.

Since 2011, the Publication Forum project coordinated by the Federation of Finnish Learned Societies has been tasked with the classification of different publication channels on the basis of their quality. This work is now in the final stretch, and researchers representing the fields of my faculty are increasingly choosing to publish in journals and with publishers that have been assigned a Publication Forum classification. In other words, researchers’ publishing behaviour has changed significantly.

Satisfying the requirements of the ministry isn’t enough anymore, as also research funders have their demands. The European Union and the Academy of Finland have expressed their strong preference, or even demand, for publishing research findings in open access channels. In many fields, this demand is currently conflicting with the Publication Forum classification. In human sciences, open access publishing is still in its infancy. The majority of open access channels are so new that they have not been given a Publication Forum classification. The Bell’s Predatory Publishers List, on the other hand, reveals that open access publishing has brought about hundreds of fraudulent journals seeking to make money off of researchers.

The schizophrenic situation was recently noted in a meeting of the chairs of the Publication Forum panels, a role in which I have acted for a year now and, before that, as a member of a panel ever since its establishment. At worst, publishing in a journal with a Publication Forum classification can be in conflict with funders’ requirements. Furthermore, from the viewpoint a researcher’s merits, it is usually better to publish in a high-impact, Publication Forum classified journal than in an open access channel still finding its place.

As a solution to the problem, setting up a system of parallel publishing in the universities has been proposed, allowing researchers to make their articles accepted for publication in scientific journals available to everyone without infringing any copyrights. The idea is good, but the legal jungle is really thick. Parallel publishing would require contracts with hundreds if not thousands of publishers. This is something that cannot remain at the responsibility of researchers, and I suspect that without additional resources, the task is also beyond the scope of the library.

In my opinion, publishing research findings in forums that have the highest scientific and social impact is crucial for promoting science.  A journal with a high Publication Forum classification doesn’t necessarily guarantee the best impact.

harri_siiskonenHarri Siiskonen

Reputation is a long-term project

Years ago, I participated in a world conference on environmental history at St Andrews. To my surprise, the train from Edinburgh did not arrive at St Andrews town centre, but at a stop in the middle of a vast field. The silhouette of a small coastal town located on a cape opened up in the horizon.

Was this really the home of the well-known educational institution found among the UK’s top six universities? The combination of a small town with less than 20,000 inhabitants and a university with 8,000 students seemed unreal. The University of St Andrews has turned its small size and remote location into attraction factors in its marketing, as can be seen in the following passage taken from the university’s website: “Why study at University of St Andrews? A small place, where you can get to know almost everyone – but with big ambitions in every shape from teaching and research to sport, music, drama, volunteering and charities.” St Andrews places emphasis on tradition and quality by reminding us that it is the third oldest university in the English-speaking world. Globally, there are several similar examples of small yet well-known universities, and perhaps we could learn something from them.

In university rankings, our performance is negatively affected by the fact that we are not particularly well-known. Within the scientific community, the quality and extensiveness of our research and the level of our research environments are factors through which we can raise awareness of our activities. Active publishing, working abroad, networking and participation in international conferences are excellent ways to spread the word about us. The decline in the interest of first- and second-degree students and doctoral students to study and work abroad is a concerning recent trend.

In the recently closed admission round, the attractiveness of the University of Eastern Finland as a place to study in continued to grow. However, we could do much better by using the positive images related to our education provision and our campuses to make up for the negative images related to our location. Without proper understanding of who we are and what we do, the location of our campuses gets more attention than our education provision. This is my conclusion of the results presented in the Kun koulu loppuu (Once School is Out) report by the Economic Information Office of Finland charting upper secondary school students’ future plans and images of Finnish higher education institutions. On a positive note, those interested in the University of Eastern Finland were clearly thirstier for knowledge and more appreciative of education than those interested in the other universities included in the survey.

Based on this survey, a rapid improvement of our national reputation is a challenging task. Over the past year, we have sought to raise awareness of who we are and what we do through UEF student ambassadors visiting upper secondary schools. Alongside students who are happy to study with us and positive media coverage, the development of alumni activities gives us tools to disseminate up-to-date information about our university to prospective students, their parents and main stakeholder groups alike. Our alumni constitute a resource we haven’t fully used yet.

The University of Eastern Finland, even when taking the history of its predecessors into consideration, is a young player in the international field. Standing out from the mass through determined definition of profile is a way to promote our reputation among colleagues, decision-makers and the general public. This makes location less important than knowledge and expertise, which are something students and researchers have been attracted by throughout centuries.

harri_siiskonenHarri Siiskonen