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Open science practices in different disciplines (4) - An interview with Prof Panos Merkouris and Prof Lorenzo Squintani, Faculty of Law

Date:16 June 2022
Author:Giulia Trentacosti and Marjan van Ittersum
©UG, photo: Peter van der Sijde
©UG, photo: Peter van der Sijde

The University of Groningen (UG) sees the development of open science as one of its priorities for the next 5 years. In this series of interviews, we explore the status of open science at the different UG faculties. This time: the Faculty of Law.

Panos Merkouris (PL) is Professor of Interpretation & Dispute Settlement in International Law and Open Science ambassador for the Faculty of Law. His research revolves around International Law, Law of Treaties and Dispute Settlement.

Lorenzo Squintani (LS) is Professor of Energy Law and Open Science ambassador. His research revolves around European Environmental and Energy Law and Consumer Law.

Why is open science important in the field of law?

LS: Open science in Law is as important as it is in other disciplines. Of course, Law has some peculiarities, in the sense that our primary data (laws and judgments) are usually already publicly available. Open science can, however, certainly be beneficial for empirical law research, which uses interviews or questionnaires. It can provide more transparency and facilitates checking the quality of the work and reusing the materials for further research.

PM: I agree with Lorenzo.  Speaking mostly from the perspective of International and European Law, most judgments tend to be open indeed. However, there are some that are still closed, either because the parties did not want to release them or because they are accessible via a particular database which not everybody has access to. The increase in interdisciplinary research also strengthens the need to become more familiar and attuned to open science practices. Being open about the methods and the materials that we use in our research and granting everyone access to this information is becoming increasingly more imperative.

What is the current state of affairs in terms of open science at the Faculty of Law?

LS: Within European Law, we are very advanced in terms of open publishing (1). It is nice to see that open science is included in the strategic plan of the faculty. Thanks to the emphasis that funding agencies place on openness, I noticed that many colleagues now accept and know about open science and especially open access. However, sharing datasets and sources are instead practices that are still not as widespread as in other disciplines, although we are growing in these areas too. In our discipline this dimension is strongly influenced by the fact that we work with laws, regulations and judgements that in many cases are already open datasets. For instance, I work with case law of the Court of Justice. I can simply go to https://curia.europa.eu/ or https://eur-lex.europa.eu/ where you have the whole database available. Of course, I then make a selection for my analysis, but I just indicate the judgment number and the references in my articles so the other members of the community can find the data and can build upon it. There are also law scholars who build their own datasets by doing interviews or questionnaires. Whenever possible, I put the datasets that I’ve created in open repositories, within the limits of privacy laws and the ethical approval granted by the participants. However, this is more the exception than the rule at our faculty. In general though, the research tradition in law makes sharing primary data less necessary than in other disciplines. 

PM: Regarding engagement with the public - which is also part of open science - , we at  the Young Academy Groningen (YAG) were involved in ‘Knowlands’  in collaboration with the Scholierenacademie, which connects the UG with primary and secondary schools (especially in the north of the Netherlands). In this project scientists from various fields present their research to school pupils. There is also a Science Festival that is organized by the YAG. The Faculty of Law participates, but these efforts to connect with students before they go to university and to make science a bit more popular are mostly done at the UG-level. 

LS: The discussion about open educational resources (OER) has just started at our faculty. I am an OER ambassador and I am in contact with the library OER team about this. While from the research perspective the idea of sharing articles and research results is very integrated in the mentality of our community, I noticed that there are fewer people that are enthusiastic about open education. This is the first barrier we encounter when discussing OER with my colleagues. There are still a lot of preliminary talks to be done before this dimension is better understood and accepted at our faculty. 

Which objectives do you want to achieve in the upcoming two years with regard to the implementation of open science?

PM: I think one area where we could do more is bringing the students in the game and help them familiarize themselves with open science practices. To do this, we as teachers also need to become more familiar with these practices. Since students are the next generation of scientists, it makes sense to strike at the very core of the problem. Incorporating these ideas in our own teaching is a step in the right direction. 

LS: The greatest task and challenge for our faculty and for the legal community would be to increase the share of open access publishing in Dutch-language journals. In this area we really need to break the taboo and change the approach that we have towards the largest publisher of Dutch-language legal research, Wolters Kluwer. The issue with Kluwer being so reluctant to transition to open access is due to a variety of factors, like the fact that authors and editors are remunerated for publishing in these journals. In addition, these journals have a professional, practice-oriented target audience (e.g. law firms, ministries, law professionals, etc.). This situation has repercussions on education as it makes it more difficult to make materials available to students in the Dutch-language track, which usually prescribes Dutch-language readings.

You mentioned that the faculty wants to familiarize students with open science practices and incorporate these in teaching. What challenges do you foresee?

PM: The challenge is whether you can make it work in a particular project or a course and whether you can continue with it. We have a course called ‘Seminar International Law in Practice’ in which students work on a paper together. They need to do research and sometimes create a dataset, code and a code book. Students for instance have had to identify cases where Dutch courts took into account international humanitarian law. With the various steps the students take in this course, they familiarize themselves with, for instance, pre-registration, the FAIR principles, and open access publishing. So it is doable, but in order to make it more long term it really needs to be incorporated in a course, where the topic will also have to change regularly, otherwise the students of next year will simply piggyback on what has already been done. Besides this, you also need experts to supervise such projects. So, it is being done in some courses where possible. The students can get some experience with open science practices, sometimes already at the undergraduate level. The key word here is practice, practice, practice; practice makes perfect. There are considerations to be taken into account because it is a difficult task, but the benefits that we can reap from it make this an enticing perspective.

Recognizing and rewarding open science practices is an important part of making the full transition to open science. How do you think the faculty should change the recognition and reward of open science practices at the Law faculty?

PM: Yes, I think simply ‘more’ is the keyword here, not so much change. More reward for and recognition of open science practices. For instance, what you do (UB) by putting the spotlights on various open access publications is fantastic. We’ve also had this discussion within the YAG. An increase in not only recognition, but also in some more tangible evidence like more time for research, grant support and such, would be good. But this is a framework that already exists, so more would be my answer here.

But it goes beyond this. With respect to the general development and professional development of academic staff, open science practices should become a more substantial part of the discussion around promotions and general professional development - not only for researchers, but also for teachers. People pour their very soul into what they do, whether it is research or teaching, it should make no difference. Open science is open education as well.  

LS: I think there is not enough attention for open science practices as a criterion for assessing the performance on staff. This has to do with the current UFO-profiles, which of course are national agreements. The change that should take place, implementing the increase of relevance of open science practices, should take place on a national level. If they also encompass open education and open educational resources, then it will not only be about research, but it will be about research and education. 

Our faculty is starting to place a bigger emphasis on education tracks. I know that one of our colleagues was recently appointed Professor of Educational Innovation, Data Sharing and Communication but I am not sure whether this was due to an educational track promotion. What I do know, and I am referring to the UFO-profiles here, is that within our faculty the newly created profile ‘Lecturer One’, as a full-fledged recognized educational function, is not perceived favorably. Even colleagues who prefer the teaching dimension of our job, do not like this lecturer-profile so much, even when this function will probably grow into higher scales and higher salaries. The ud-profile is still being perceived as nicer than the pure lecturer profile,  the function's description is an ongoing debate at our faculty.

Regarding research funding, NWO recently changed the way they evaluate proposals so that more emphasis is placed on quality, instead of the quantity of publications and prestige of the publication venue. They also moved to a narrative cv format. How do you perceive these changes, in light of the recognition and rewards-discussion, but also beyond?

LS: I speak from my experience with the recent Vidi-round for which I wrote the narrative cv. It was a nice experience; it provides a chance to reflect on yourself. However, looking at how it was evaluated, NWO made a remark that did not reflect their new policy of stepping away from impact factor. So the cultural change in NWO requirements is there in writing, but on the assessment side a lot still needs to be done, I would say. Therefore, at the moment I do not see much of an impact yet, but I do think the new format helps us reflect more upon the shift towards open science reward and recognition. With the narrative cv format, you are invited to indicate what your contribution to open science is and this is, at times, evaluated. I do see a shift towards being evaluated on open science practices at the  European level. For example, my contribution to Curia Europe was acknowledged by the reviewers of my NWO proposal.

[1] There is a significant divide between English-language law journals, which tend to offer open access options and are covered by the UG’s institutional open access agreements, and Dutch-language law journals, most of which have not yet embraced the transition to open access. The options to publish open access are therefore significantly reduced for law researchers publishing in Dutch-language journals. 

About the author

Giulia Trentacosti and Marjan van Ittersum

Giulia Trentacosti is the open access and scholarly communication specialist at the University Library and pillar leader for the Open Access pillar in the Open Science Program of the University of Groningen.

Marjan van Ittersum is assistant and deputy program manager of the Open Science of the University of Groningen

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