Statistical consultation work at universities

As part of my responsibilities I manage a statistical consultation unit in my Chair at Umeå and also take care of a university-wide Centre for consultation. SLU has in fact a good centrally organised and paid consultation service with dedicated staff. Every major campus at Umeå, Ultuna and Alnarp has a unit supporting students and staff with statistical advice. Apart from that the statistical staff is often also involved in statistical teaching. Recently statistical consultation has also stretched to consultation in R programming, as skills in scientific programming and computing are actually not as widespread in natural sciences as one would think. All statistical consultants are organised in a centre referred to as Statistics@SLU. This centre was originally founded in 2002 as Biostokastikum by Bo Ranneby and Dietrich von Rosen with an initial remit for research but then changed its focus towards consultation.

Statistics@SLU has been a new experience for me during the last three years, as statistical consultation mostly meant additional “homework” at the other places I worked before and was therefore often avoided by those charged with it. Indeed, statistical consultation on top of research, teaching and administration can be a burden and a major distraction.

Therefore it is a good idea to organise this important mission properly by setting aside funds and dedicated staff. Still a centre of statistics like Statistics@SLU is not without its challenges: Not everybody values statistical consultation and takes this kind of service for granted. Internal funding is always scarce at any university and retiring statisticians are not always replaced. And the statisticians engaging in consultation are often not well recognised for their work and face problems when applying for promotion, because their workload often does not allow them to accumulate the necessary publications.

That is why it is so important to have a Centre where all consultants are united and can exchange their experience but also support each other. The Centre can effectively negotiate terms with the heads of departments, the deans and the vice chancellor. In this effort we are advised and guided by a steering committee and I am grateful for their commitment. This is also helpful to gain different perspectives.

This year we have again received good feedback for our work from both students and staff. For the consultants involved it is valuable to know that their efforts are appreciated. My Department has supported my consultation unit at Umeå by providing the funds to employ another statistician and the Faculty of Forest Sciences is kindly contributing towards funding the space charges of a dedicated consultation room that we intend to name after one of my predecessors, Prof. Bertil Matérn, an eminent Swedish statistician. The development of statistical consultation looks promising and we hope to secure continued central support for the good work that is done for students and staff.

Open access for public data – Reality or wishful thinking?

Terms like open source software, open access journals and public data have recently been much discussed in scientific communities and are in fact buzzwords. In the last few months I happened to get involved in issues of data transparency and of the availability of raw data. As part of this involvement I had to learn that open access to public data, i.e. data collected on the expense of tax-payers’ money, is not taken for granted everywhere in Europe. This came to me as a surprise, since many scientific journals, particularly in ecology, have adopted the policy of making the public availability of data (and often also of R scripts) a pre-requisite for publishing.

To cast light into this, I grabbed the phone and got in contact with a specialised lawyer from the Deutsche Hochschulverband in Bonn. He confirmed that European laws do indeed require data collected by public institutions to be publicly available. Such data are in fact not subject to intellectual property rights. Similar laws are apparently also in place in countries outside the EU, in North America and in Australia. In the UK and in the US these laws are referred to as the Freedom of Information Act. The purpose of these laws is to ensure the transparency and the reuse of data, particularly those that are gathered in a university context. Such raw data are generally free and Simon Hoggart adds that the British Ecological Society explicitly encourage data reuse through the open data policy they have adopted for their journals. The national research councils in every country are charged with the task to watch over the open-data legislation. Open access to data is also an important principle of the European Horizon 2020 research programme.

Given these trends and the clear legislation it is difficult to understand that research groups in some countries still try to sneak their way into good publications by making the use of their data dependent on a co-authorship without contributing to neither the analysis nor the text. It is usually weak research groups that try to enforce such practices, which constitute a clear breach of international authorship agreements such as the Vancouver protocol. Other groups try to raise money by arguing the data provision creates chargeable costs.

These practices are attempts not to comply with the current international legislation and with the requirements of the respective funding bodies. The OECD paper on “Principles and Guidelines for Access to Research Data from Public Funding” cite the US National Research Council: “The value of data lies in their use. Full and open access to scientific data should be adopted as the international norm for the exchange of scientific data derived from publicly funded research.” This is a very good expression for a vision that many of us share. In my view open data and methods (in the form of, for example R or SAS scripts) stimulate research cooperation and build trust in research results. Open access to research data is a fundamental principle of the international research community similar to human rights and democracy. We should all live up to this ethos and remind others to do the same.