Today, there is an empty spot in EU digital regulation: education and research. The digital transition has and is already having a profound impact on these activities, as well as the ambitions of universities to make knowledge widely accessible.
Universities across Europe have been quick to move their learning and teaching online during the pandemic, but digitalization won’t stop with digitally enhanced learning. Similarly in research and innovation, the importance of data-driven science has increased over the last decades, starting with disciplines such as particle physics or biomedicine and more recently also in the social sciences. and human. The current pandemic is one of the best examples of the rise of big data and, more importantly, the guarantee of its sharing. It was a turning point that demonstrated that only the global openness of data allowed researchers and innovators to deploy vaccines and deliver adaptable public health measures.
Open Science is a movement paving the way for the open availability of research results for all and the promotion of full access, sharing and reuse of data and protocols. More generally, it is a fundamental driver of universities’ mission in society at large and their ability to cooperate in solving global challenges like climate change or the next pandemic.
“Digital and research policy makers need to be aware of the conflicts and obstacles on the path to open science”
The European University Association recent open science survey demonstrated the strategic importance of open science for European universities, with more than half of the institutions surveyed rating it as very high or high importance for their strategy. But while open access to research publications was of great importance to 90% of institutions, only 60% considered its level of implementation to be high enough.
Furthermore, this gap widens in data-related areas where implementation remains much weaker. To specifically achieve open access, institutional repositories – digital platforms or archives where research created within a university and made available and accessible with little or no barriers – are considered the most common and more important. Yet European legislation such as the Digital Services Act (DSA) could severely hamper, if not completely stifle, universities’ efforts to share science widely through institutional repositories. If nothing is done, the DSA would overload them with unnecessary legal, administrative and financial constraints.
The private sector can also create a barrier to sharing research results for the benefit of society when it chooses to intervene. Recently, publishers have attempted to establish criteria that are too restrictive in their advice to researchers in choosing a repository to manage, share and preserve their data. Stakeholders in the research community have expressed concerns about the nature of the proposed set of criteria. There are also questions about the lack of transparency in how scholarly publishers allow researchers to use open data. This may conflict with what universities or funding bodies recommend. It remains important to strengthen and expand the existing repository ecosystem and encourage the adoption of best practices, but researchers must have real choice, including the ability to choose institutional, national, community-run domain or generalists. Policy makers in the digital and research fields need to be aware of the conflicts and obstacles on the path to open science.
“Higher education and research in Europe have specific values that must be protected, especially from the control of big technology companies”
More broadly, universities also plan to implement digital data management and collection tools that will help them grow and improve, just like any other sector. However, higher education and research in Europe have specific values that need to be protected, especially against the control of big technology companies. With e-learning and digital management, the possibilities for data collection and monitoring are increasing, with perhaps a European education or skills data space as a consequence. Here, the control and ownership of this data becomes a relevant issue. Who will have access to data on the learning behavior of Europe’s 20 million students? Should we know how often they click a mouse during an online course, whether their eye movement suggests they are paying attention or not, or whether they should be labeled as “problematic” or “at risk” by an algorithm? Should learning data be available for private providers, such as large for-profit online platforms, to sell credentials? Should big tech companies be able to use them for their own training programs? These are big questions of concern to universities, which benefit from digital services but must remain in control. Research and education data is not like any other data space, it depends on individual values and life choices. The Digital Markets Act is a good step towards securing a competitive market for digital services, and the Artificial Intelligence Act sets limits on the use of AI in education. However, systematic attention should be given across digital regulation to research and education, and to the specific needs of the institutions performing these functions.
This raises two questions: first, how does regulation impede access to knowledge? Is the legislation appropriate for the type of entities that ensure that scientific knowledge is accessible to all? Second, how can we ensure that human values guide education and research, and that digitalization gives private companies the opportunity to serve, but not control and direct, what we know and how we learn? These issues need to be addressed as part of the debate on Europe’s digital transformation.
This article reflects the views of the author and not the views of The Parliament Magazine or the Dods Group