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Open science practices in different disciplines (8) - an interview with Mladen Popovic (Dean FTR) and Todd Weir (Open Science Ambassador)

Date:12 June 2023
Author:Vera Heininga & Marjan van Ittersum

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 Theology and Religious Studies (as of 1 September 2023, Faculty of Religious Culture and Society).

Professor Mladen Popovic (MP) is Dean of the faculty. His research focuses on the Hebrew bible, dead sea scrolls, artificial intelligence and palaeography, judaism in the graeco-roman period, archaeology, ancient sciences, astrology, physiognomics, and magic.

Todd Weir (TW) is Associate Professor with a focus on the cultural and intellectual history of modern Germany and Europe, transnational history of religion and secularism, and the history of modern worldviews. He is the Open Science Ambassador at the faculty.

Why is open science important in the field of theology and religious studies/field of religious culture and society?

MP: Open science suits this faculty and is second nature to the field. The context in which we practice open science changes. Religion continues to play an important role in society, 85% of the world population is religious, and that number will grow, but questions concerning religion also emerge in other ways in secularised countries such as the Netherlands, for example in work and questions of meaning. These were initially addressed solely by religious institutions (the different churches). These same questions are still around and important, but are approached in a broader sense, in how people find meaning in their work and how they can have a meaningful contribution to the world. Not just young people ask these questions. This is a worldwide phenomenon that our faculty wants to respond to.

TW: This faculty is one of the oldest faculties in the university and it has always practiced open science in the sense that we were educating theologians, ministers for the church. But over the years, the context in which religion is being practiced has changed. Fewer ministers are being educated but a more variety of people now have an interest in religious studies, comparative history, religious culture, and so on. With that experience we are  finding a need to shift the focus of open science. We need to address the broader public and other disciplines. That also is one of the reasons why we're changing the name of the faculty, to reflect this shift in focus.

We have an interesting student population at the moment. On the one hand we have theology students who come more from the traditional church background and are very focused on Christianity. On the other hand, and that is the larger part of our student body, we have students who are interested in religious studies and culture. They are interested in the comparison and they are also interested in the dynamic tension between the secular and the religious. 

Similar to these students, several of our researchers are also interested in that tension between traditional religion and novel forms of spirituality or meaning making. They research how the religious is being reconfigured in the secular context. This means that our research and outreach is grappling with important issues facing contemporary Dutch and European society. 

What is the current state of affairs in terms of open science at your faculty?

MP: We are active on almost all themes within open science, especially public outreach and societal engagement. In 2018 we already announced that we want to move towards societal engagement and therefore reciprocity instead of one-way valorisation or impact. In addition, for most of our disciplines, the research data are open (for example, texts such as the Bible or the Koran). We hardly use closed datasets. An exception here is what is used in anthropological fieldwork, where we work with human subjects and politically sensitive themes. It is always one’s own fieldwork that is used as data. In such cases, we have to - and can - be more restrictive and extremely careful, and thus also have to consider the privacy and protection of individuals. With regard to publishing open access, we not only publish in open access journals, but also write chapters in open access books and edited volumes.

TW: I agree that public involvement plays a major role within our faculty. Our research centers have a connecting effect and address public issues. They aim to improve what we call religious literacy, through collaborative projects with the Expertise Center for Philosophy of Life and Religion in Secondary Education (LERVO). This is a project in which we help to shape a course about religion and philosophy at both Christian and public secondary schools. Besides this, we have several other projects that have led to the production of publicly available open books. For this, for instance, the open access book fund is very useful for our faculty. I have actually applied for it myself. 

MP: We are also doing more and more in the FAIR data and software direction. There's a heavy involvement in the participatory research team in helping each other in questions about data availability. People are increasingly more interested in digital sources. Not just close readings of texts, but doing digital searches in large bodies of texts. These are freely available.We are aware of the FAIR principles and by using openly available data as we do in most of our studies, we oblige to these principles already.

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

MP: Because open science is already so much in our DNA, we don't have a specific policy that focuses on it. We actually already do most things, such as Public Engagement, Open Access and FAIR data. We certainly will stay focussed on these parts of open science to continue and develop. Open education is an area I would like to focus more on. 

TW: We as a faculty are already engaged in some Open Education activities, for instance  several MOOCs have been developed , such as Religion, Gender and Sexual Wellbeing by Kim Knibbe's team. Besides the MOOCS, our faculty is conducting one of two projects at the university that are issuing micro credentials. We developed a course for Dutch diplomats to be trained in diplomacy and religion, to gain more knowledge of religious context and sensitivity. The intention is to broaden the scope for these open education courses towards societies with a democratic core government. These open education courses are part of our Heritage group.

Personally, my ambition is to do more with open education. As an open science ambassador, I would like to inform colleagues more about the possibilities and develop the capacity for open education resources more within our faculty. Our Erasmus Plus project is a good example.. Together with partners in Spain, France and Hungary, we piloted teaching methods in using heritage for inclusive education and then authored two textbooks with the results; We are now exploring with the University of Groningen Press whether we might bring these textbooks to a wider audience through an open-access publication.

MP: Besides the internal focus on creating open educational resources, our faculty has a strong international orientation, so we could help people and organisations elsewhere in the world who have no resources for open educational materials, to create impact or opportunities for access. That would be a bonus.

What obstacles and challenges do you expect in achieving these objectives, and how will you overcome them?

MP: Similar to other humanities faculties, open access publishing is sometimes a challenge for our researchers because of our focus on books and articles in edited volumes. At first, when open access publishing became the focus, the general attention was mostly turned to open access publishing for articles in journals due to its volume, but now we see a shift towards chapters and edited volumes, which again is more our outlet in publishing.

TW: I do foresee some challenges in open education with regard to finding the right audience, and how to approach this audience. For example, how do you reach and encourage educators to engage more in open education? And how do you teach the teacher on creating open educational resources.  Also, what is the market when publishing open educational textbooks? We are very happy with the University of Groningen Press (UGP). UGP, together with the Open Science Programme, is working on institutionalizing open textbook publishing but not all educators might be aware of such possibilities to open up their teaching materials. I think many course materials could be transformed into public textbooks or multimedia products. Collaboration with third parties such as high schools is key to overcoming these challenges. Working together can be very labor intensive but also very productive, it is all about choosing your partners wisely.

Recognizing and rewarding open science practices is an important part of the academic culture shift towards open science. How do you envision the change towards the reward and recognition of open science practices at your faculty?

MP: At the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies, we do not see reward and recognition as a separate component, but as part of our research and our education. Same goes for impact, which is also integrated in our research and education. 

TW: I think it is important that open science practices are recognized and rewarded. For example, open textbooks cost a lot of time, and time allocation is really an issue. If the university sees open science as a priority, then it could make  funds available to allow staff to undertake such activities, If the university leads, then faculties will match the university’s priorities.

Prof Popovic, you are part of the UG’s Reward & Recognition committee. What is the role of the Reward & Recognition committee within the RUG. You mention that R&R is very much integrated in your faculty and no separate or additional policy is necessary to further develop it. What is the role of the R&R committee for your faculty?

MP: The UG committee realizes it is not a one-size-fits-all model that we can develop for all faculties. The model that FSE is introducing might not fit for instance the faculty of Arts, or our faculty. In my view, there needs to be a certain amount of freedom for faculties to be able to diversify and be able to make choices that fits best their specific needs. Available resources of course are also a big factor in these choices.

About the author

Vera Heininga & Marjan van Ittersum

Vera Heininga is Open Science programme leader of the UG/UMCG and postdoctoral researcher at the Interdisciplinary Centre Psychopathology and Emotion regulation (ICPE) of the UMCG.

Marjan van Ittersum is assistant programme leader of the Open Science Programme of the UG/UMCG.